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The hazardous nature of handling cement

World Cement,

As cement is one of the most widely used products in construction, the cement industry is safe - but are the people who use it? Anyone who uses cement (or any product containing cement, such as mortar, plaster and concrete) or is responsible for managing might be aware that it can cause burns, but not everyone is aware of the full hazardous potential that the products present. These are usually defined as:

Health effects
Cement can cause ill health mainly by: skin contact, inhalation of dust and manual handling.

Full information can be found in the HSE information sheet Construction Information Sheet No 26 (revision2), but the basics are outlined below.

Skin contact
Contact with wet cement can cause both dermatitis and burns.


Skin affected by dermatitis feels itchy and sore, and looks red, scaly and cracked. Cement is capable of causing dermatitis by two mechanisms: irritancy and allergy.

Irritant dermatitis is caused by the physical properties of cement that irritate the skin mechanically.

Allergic dermatitis is caused by sensitisation to the hexavalent chromium (chromate) present in cement - this is quite distinct from irritancy. Sensitisers penetrate the barrier layer of the skin and cause an allergic reaction.

Both irritant and allergic dermatitis can affect a person at the same time.

Cement burns
Wet cement can cause burns. The principal cause is thought to be the alkalinity of the wet cement.

Inhalation of dust
High levels of dust can be produced when cement is handled, for example when emptying or disposing of bags. In the short term, exposure to high levels of cement dust irritates the nose and throat. Scabbling, or concrete cutting, can also produce high levels of dust that may contain silica. Advice on the health effects of exposure to silica can be found in the HSE Construction Information Sheet 36 (revision1).

Manual handling

Working with cement also poses risks such as sprains and strains, particularly to the back, arms and shoulders from lifting and carrying cement bags, mixing mortar, etc. More serious damage to the back can be caused in the long term if workers are continually lifting heavy weights.


The effects of cement causing ill health can be reduced by applying the golden rule: ERIC PD, which simply means:
· Eliminate or substitute.
· Reduce the amount of contact or number of persons handling.
· Isolate.
· Control.
· Personal protective equipment (PPE).
· Discipline.

In practical terms, this means:

Skin contact
One should first consider using elimination or substitution to prevent the possibility of contact with cement. You should also reduce the number of persons that either use cement or come into contact with it. Otherwise, it is important to apply control measures that minimise contact with the skin either directly or indirectly from contaminated surfaces in the working environment.

Effective washing of the skin with warm water and soap, or another skin cleanser, and drying the skin afterwards is an important way of controlling cement dermatitis. Changing clothes should also be available.

Gloves may help to protect skin from cement, but they may not be suitable for all aspects of construction site work. Protective clothing should be provided, including overalls with long sleeves and long trousers.

Manual handling
Manual handling of heavy loads should be avoided. In particular, cement should be supplied in 25 kg bags or ordered in bulk supply. Where manual handling does take place, one should assess the risks and adopt appropriate risk control measures.

Inhalation of dust
Exposure to dust should be eliminated where possible, for example, by purchasing ready mixed concrete. Where this is not possible, the risk should be assessed and appropriate control measures implemented.

The last resort
As a preventative measure, PPE should always be worn where practical, but should be a last resort. The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations, 1992, require employers to provide suitable personal protective equipment for their employees, to make sure it is maintained (and replaced, where necessary) and to inform, instruct and train employees required to use it.

Cement will always be a fundamental part of the construction industry and accidents will always happen. Even if the government decides not to focus on occupational health, it is essential to produce the best work possible and ensure that employees and employers return home safely.

Author: Vincent Oblyschuk Crossroad Health & Safety Systems Ltd, UK

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