UGANDA, Kampala | Real Muloodi News | Cement is one of the most sought after materials in the Ugandan construction industry.
When water is added to cement it hardens, creating a sturdy material that does not break easily, and can withstand years of wear and tear. These qualities makes it an indispensable material in modern construction. Thanks to its strength and durability, it is used in all aspects of construction, from foundation, to floors, walls, ceilings, tiling and plumbing.
Some people mistake cement for concrete, yet the two are different. Cement is one of the ingredients of concrete, along with water and aggregates added to the concrete mixture. Cement acts as a glue that holds the materials together.
The ingredients of modern cement includes clay, limestone, marlstone, or mudstone. Its chemical components include alkaline, silicon dioxide, and sulphur trioxide.
Some of the most common types of cement on the Ugandan market include ordinary portland cement like Tororo and Hima Cement.
However, cement is a hazardous construction material. Thousands of construction workers are exposed to cement every day.
Anyone who uses or supervises the use of portland cement should know its health hazards, as well as the safe working procedures necessary to minimise exposure. This article outlines those hazards and makes recommendations on how to use cement safely.
Cement is a hazardous construction material that can have cause negative health effects through skin contact, eye contact, or inhalation. Risk of injury depends on duration and level of exposure, and each individual’s sensitivity.
Hazardous materials in cement (and therefore in wet concrete and mortar) include:
- Alkaline compounds such as lime (calcium oxide) that are corrosive to human tissue.
- Trace amounts of crystalline silica which is abrasive to the skin and can damage lungs.
- Trace amounts of chromium that can cause allergic reactions.
Wet cement is hazards due to its caustic, abrasive, and drying properties.
If skin is exposed to cement for a short period before it is thoroughly washed off, the risk irritation is minimal. However, continuous contact between skin and wet cement allows the alkaline compounds to penetrate and burn the skin.
In fact, if wet cement is trapped against the skin for an extensive period, it may even result in first, second, or third degree burns or skin ulcers. These injuries can take several months to heal, and may involve hospitalisation and skin grafts in the worst of cases.
Ironically, severe cases often occur when personal protective clothing or equipment is worn. For example, wet cement may fall inside a worker’s boots or gloves, or gradually soak through protective clothing. Concrete finishers kneeling on fresh concrete without waterproof kneepads have had their knees severely burned.
Even cement dust released from concrete cutting or bag dumping can react with moisture from sweat or wet clothing to form a caustic solution that can irritate the skin.
Exposure to airborne dust may cause immediate or delayed irritation of the eyes. Depending on the level of exposure, the effects can range from redness, to chemical burns and even blindness.
Inhaling cement dust may occur when workers empty bags of cement. In the short term, such exposure irritates the nose and throat, causing choking and difficult breathing. In some cases, it camcause pneumonia.
Sanding, grinding, or cutting set concrete can also release large amounts of dust containing high levels of crystalline silica. Prolonged or repeated exposure to breathing in this dust can lead to a disabling and often fatal lung disease called silicosis. Some studies also indicate a link between crystalline silica exposure and lung cancer.
A small, yet significant percentage workers using cement will develop an allergy to the hexavalent chromium in cement. Workers may develop both skin and respiratory allergies to hexavalent chromium.
Symptoms on the skin can range from a mild rash to severe skin ulcers.
Respiratory allergy to hexavalent chromium is called occupational asthma. Symptoms include wheezing and difficulty breathing.
It’s possible to work with cement for years without any allergic reaction, and then suddenly develop such a reaction. The condition gradually gets worse, until exposure to minute quantities will trigger a severe reaction.
The allergy usually lasts a lifetime, preventing any future work with wet or powder cement.
If you are working with cement, here are some basic recommendations for handling and using it safely:
To protect the skin from cement and cement mixtures, workers should wear:
- Alkali-resistant gloves and boots
- Coveralls with long sleeves and full-length trousers (pull sleeves down over gloves and tuck pants inside boots and duct-tape at the top to keep mortar and concrete out).
- Waterproof boots that are high enough to prevent concrete from spilling in when workers must stand in fresh concrete
- Suitable respiratory protective equipment such as a P95, N95 or R95 respirator/masks when cement dust can’t be avoided
- Suitable eye protection where mixing, pouring, or other activities may endanger eyes. At a minimum, safety glasses with side-shields or goggles. Under extremely dusty conditions, tight-fitting unvented or indirectly vented goggles should be worn.
- Do not wear contact lenses when handling cement or cement products.
Best Work Practices
- Work in ways that minimises the amount of cement dust released. For example, when laying concrete blocks, have different sizes on hand to minimise cutting or hammering to make them fit.
- Where possible, wet-cut rather than dry-cut masonry products.
- Mix dry cement in well-ventilated areas.
- Make sure to work upwind from dust sources.
- Where possible, use ready-mixed concrete instead of mixing on site.
- When kneeling on fresh concrete, use a dry board or waterproof kneepads to protect knees from water that can soak through clothing fabric.
- Remove jewelry such as rings and watches because wet cement can collect under them.
- Clothing contaminated by wet cement should be quickly removed. Skin in contact with wet cement should be washed immediately with large amounts of cool clean water.
- Don’t wash your hands with water from buckets used for cleaning tools.
- Provide adequate hygiene facilities on site for workers to wash hands and face at the end of a job, and before eating, drinking, or using the WC. Facilities for cleaning boots and changing clothes should be made available.
Address cement related health issues quickly.
Skin contaminated with wet or dry cement should be washed with cold running water as soon as possible. Open sores or cuts should be thoroughly flushed and covered with suitable dressings. Get medical attention if discomfort persists.
Contaminated eyes should be washed with cold tap water for at least 15 minutes before the affected person is taken to hospital.
Remember, cement is a hazardous construction material. If you’re continually exposed to cement dust, it is advisable to carry out health check-ups regularly.
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