Concrete is an inexpensive wonder material that figures prominently in many residential and commercial building projects. Unfortunately, working with concrete comes with its share of risks.

More than 250,000 people work in concrete manufacturing and 10% of them have suffered a work-related injury or illness. Worse, 42 have died from work-related causes in just one year.

In 2016, a catastrophic formwork failure at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, Canada led to 500 cubic meters of wet cement collapsing on the project's powerhouse. Five workers fell into the collapsed area, with one worker needing to be taken away for medical attention.

Not every concrete incident is as dramatic as that one, and things could have been much worse if the formwork collapse didn't happen while workers were on break, but they're all worth taking seriously.

(Learn more in When Safety Leadership Failed: Lessons Learned from Major Disasters.)

In this article, we'll go over the common hazards faced by concrete workers and how to deal with them.

Wet Cement

Cement is an alkali with a high pH. It is corrosive to the skin. The irritation and damage it can cause is often overlooked as a hazard.

Exposure to wet cement can result in skin damage as mild as irritation and as severe as a second- or third-degree chemical burn.

Workers dealing with wet cement should wear long-sleeve coveralls, waterproof boots, eye protection, and alkali-resistant gloves.

(Learn about 12 Types of Hand Protection Gloves - And How to Choose the Right One.)

If the skin is exposed to wet cement, it will need to be washed as soon as possible with cold, running water. If cement is splashed into the eyes, rinse them out for at least 15 minutes and seek medical attention.

Cement comes in different types with an array of additives. It's important, then, to carefully consult the manufacturer's safety data sheet (SDS) when assessing the risk of handling cement.

(Learn more in Be Prepared for Chemical Exposure Emergencies with Eyewash Equipment.)

Cement Dust

Hardened cement poses a risk, too.

Cement contains hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogenic compound whose major route of entry is through inhalation of vapors or dusts. Besides the increased risk of cancer, other potential health risks include dermatitis, asthma, nasal septa ulcerations and perforations. Recognizing these risks, OSHA lowered the permissible exposure limit for hexavalent chromium in 2006, to 52-5 micrograms-per-cubic-meter.

Exposure to cement dust can irritate the eyes, throat, nose, and upper respiratory system. Silica exposure can lead to lung cancer and silicosis. Exposure to cement dust can lead to dryness, cracking of the skin, and even severe skin damage and skin hardening.

(Learn Tips for Protecting Workers Against Silica.)

If cement dust comes in contact with the skin, it should be washed with soap and water. If it gets in the eyes, rinse it out and seek medical attention.

Workers who might be exposed to cement dust should use a P-, N-, or R-95 respirator to reduce their exposure levels.

Good hygiene is also critical to keeping workers safe. Workers should remove their dust-covered coveralls and wash their hands before eating during their break.

(Learn about The Basic Types of Respirators - And How to Choose the Right One for Your Workplace.)

Ergonomic Hazards

Let’s face it, cement is challenging to work with because of its properties. Bags of cement are heavy and awkward to carry, which can lead to sprains, strains, and back injuries. I've had the distinct pleasure of trying to carry 80lb bags of cement to and from my car. It's not an easy thing to do and getting it wrong can result in serious pain and discomfort.

Smoothing cement's no picnic, either. It often involves bending over in uncomfortable positions. Wet cement is thick and heavy, which makes it hard to spread and mix. That can lead to additional musculoskeletal disorders.

Working on formwork and rebar can present challenges, as well as, like twisting an ankle or tripping on rebar or the formwork itself. On top of that, I have a personal theory that wet cement has a rubber boot fetish, as it doesn't like to give them back once it gets a grip on them.

Always use forklifts, wheelbarrows, or other equipment when moving cement. Do what can be done to eliminate a worker's need to lift and carry cement, but also make sure to teach proper lifting techniques, how to avoid twisting when carrying, and stress the importance of taking short steps and getting help when lifting needs to be done.

Given the physical strain of the job, encourage workers to take microbreaks, to stretch, and to switch out tasks to avoid spending too much time in awkward positions.

Housekeeping is also important. Keep work areas and walkways clear and free of potential tripping hazards.

Mobile Equipment Hazards

There are numerous mobile equipment hazards associated with concrete work.

Hand injuries can occur when operating the chute on a cement truck. Have traffic control measures in place and remind workers to make sure the way is clear when walking around equipment.

Equipment should be well maintained to reduce risk and hearing protection should be worn where required.

Trucks and other equipment can have hot surfaces and a number of pinch points. Hold tailgate meetings at the start of the work day to make sure everyone knows their roles, responsibilities, and how to avoid injury.

(Find out How to Create a Safe Work Zone Using Maintenance of Traffic.)

Confined Spaces

Mixing drums are confined spaces. They have a tight entrance, can have excessive noise, and pose respiratory hazards.

Have a good confined space procedure in place, along with a well thought out job hazard analysis and an effective rescue plan.

Machine and Equipment Guarding

Ensure all guards are in place for all concrete equipment and make sure safety devices are not defeated. Belts should be well guarded and maintained.

Employees should lockout and function test the equipment prior to working on it.

(Learn about 6 Things to Look for When Selecting Machine Guards.)

Miscellaneous Hazards

Makeshift ladders, platforms, and climbing on scaffold forms can lead to falls and injuries. Ensure ladders and platforms are adequate and complete with handrails.

A simple fall to the same level can lead to impalement on uncapped rebar. Always ensure rebar is capped. Capping of rebar is always one of the primary things I look for while inspecting concrete works.

As noted above, improper or inadequately secured forms can fail, potentially leading to injury or death. Always ensure that forms are adequately braced and that the form work is adequate for the job.

Free Download: A Guide to Qualifying Contractors: Risks and Best Practices


Conclusion

Working with concrete can be a hazardous activity. With the proper procedures, PPE, training, equipment, communication, maintenance, guarding, and effective management of the mobile equipment and human interface, it can be done safely.