What is the problem?

The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) recent figures show that plasterers, bricklayers, masons and other construction workers are twice as likely to suffer with ‘contact dermatitis’ than workers in other industries. Rates of the condition are also high for carpenters, joiners, floorers, wall tilers and painters and decorators.

What is ‘contact dermatitis’?

Contact dermatitis‘ is the name for a medical condition involving dry or irritated skin caused by contact with a particular substance. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most problematic substances for people in the construction industry is cement. There is a common misconception that everyday materials such as cement, plaster and adhesives are harmless and protective gloves are not needed. But cement in particular can be extremely hazardous, especially when wet.

How can cement harm the skin?

Wet cement is very alkaline in content. If trapped against the skin, it can rapidly cause a serious burn or ulcer. In extreme cases, a person may need to have a skin graft or a limb amputated.

Cement burn causing swelling of hands, highlighting the importance of wearing gloves

Is dry cement powder hazardous too?

Dry cement powder is less hazardous but can still harm the skin. It contains chromate which can cause ‘allergic’ contact dermatitis. Manufacturers add an ingredient to lower the chromate content and reduce this risk. However, this ingredient only works for a limited time as shown by the shelf date. After this period, the level of chromate may increase again. Once a person has become sensitive to this substance, any future contact may cause dermatitis. Unfortunately because of this, some skilled construction workers have taken the huge step of changing their trade to avoid this distressing condition.

Irritant contact dermatitis on the hands which could be avoided with protective gloves

How can construction workers protect themselves from contact dermatitis?

Protective gloves are a key piece of protective clothing to guard against contact dermatitis, especially when handling wet cement. To provide adequate protection, gloves should be:

  • Long and /or tight fitting at the sleeve to prevent cement being trapped between the glove and the skin
  • Waterproof
  • Suitable for use with alkaline substance

For peace of mind they should be:

  • Marked with EN374:2003 and tested for use with “alkalis and bases” (Class K).
  • Conform to EN374-3 which demonstrates they are resist to penetration by chemicals

Some nitrile or PVC gloves may be suitable for the job. 

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