Construction Information Sheet No 26 (revision2)
skin contact with a sensitiser, the more it will penetrate
the skin, and the greater the risk of sensitisation will
become. Therefore, if cement is left on the skin
throughout the working day, rather than being washed
off at intervals, the risk of contact sensitisation to
hexavalent chromium will be increased.
Cement is widely used in construction. Anyone who
uses cement (or anything containing cement, such as
mortar, plaster and concrete) or is responsible for
managing its use should be aware that it presents a
hazard to health.
Both irritant and allergic dermatitis can affect a person
at the same time.
Cement can cause ill health mainly by:
Wet cement can cause burns. The principal cause is
thought to be the alkalinity of the wet cement. If wet
cement becomes trapped against the skin, for example
by kneeling in it or if cement falls into a boot or glove, a serious burn or ulcer can rapidly develop. These often
take months to heal, and in extreme cases will need
skin grafts or can even lead to amputation. Serious
chemical burns to the eyes can also be caused
following a splash of cement.
inhalation of dust; and
Contact with wet cement can cause both dermatitis and
Inhalation of dust
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
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
which may contain silica. Advice on the health effects
of exposure to silica can be found in Construction
Information Sheet 36 (rev1).
Irritant dermatitis is caused by the physical properties
of cement that irritate the skin mechanically. The fine
particles of cement, often mixed with sand or other
aggregates to make mortar or concrete, can abrade the
skin and cause irritation resulting in dermatitis. With
treatment, irritant dermatitis will usually clear up. But if exposure continues over a longer period the condition
will get worse and the individual is then more
susceptible to allergic dermatitis.
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
Allergic dermatitis is caused by sensitisation to the
hexavalent chromium (chromate) present in cement.
The way this works is quite distinct from that of
irritancy. Sensitisers penetrate the barrier layer of the
skin and cause an allergic reaction. Hexavalent
chromium is known to be the most common cause of
allergic dermatitis in men. Research has shown that
between 5% and 10% of construction workers may
be sensitised to cement and that plasterers,
concreters and bricklayers are particularly at risk. Once
someone has become sensitised to hexavalent
chromium, any future exposure may trigger dermatitis.
Some skilled tradesmen have been forced to change
their trade because of this. The longer the duration of
Ill health prevention and health surveillance
You should first consider using elimination or
substitution to prevent the possibility of contact with
cement. Otherwise, you should apply control measures
which minimise contact with the skin either directly or
indirectly from contaminated surfaces in the working
Employees should be encouraged to examine their own
skin for any such signs and report...