It was one of those steamy Concrete burnsJuly afternoons and the crew was waiting for the concrete trucks to arrive and pour the large pad they had just finished framing. They planned to work more quickly than usual, because they knew the concrete would start curing faster than normal, there were several truckloads, and they didn’t want to spend the afternoon baking in the heat.

The truck arrived on time and the crew put their boots on and went to work. They had worked jobs together for a couple years and didn’t need to assign tasks. A couple guys grabbed shovels to route the flow out of the chute, while the others grabbed the screeds and floats.

In an effort to get the job done quickly, several of the guys crawled onto the pour on their hands and knees and began hand-troweling it. They were sweating profusely and it didn’t take long for the sweat to soak through their clothing. Wet concrete adhered to their skin and clothes, and several hours after the last truck drove off, the workers realized they had been badly burned. One of them had second-degree burns and ended up in the hospital being treated with antibiotics.

Before they started working that day, they had completed a task hazard analysis, noting that they needed to be mindful of concrete burns. But they became so focused on getting the job done quickly that they forgot about the hazards and doing this the right way, ending up with serious, painful burns.

Concrete has been a popular construction material for hundreds of years, thanks to its inherent strength and its ability to be molded and shaped. Nearly every construction project includes it to some degree, whether that’s for structural support, flooring, foundations, sidewalks, or even decorative elements. We’ve become so comfortable working with it that we forget it’s made up of chemicals that can hurt us.

Many people who come in contact with wet concrete regularly notice that their skin may become dry or chapped. That’s not uncommon, and they may not think much about it. But with more exposure, that can easily develop into contact dermatitis or allergic contact dermatitis, which is much more serious. The hexavalent chromium often found in Portland cement is alkaline, but more important, it’s a sensitizer. Once workers are exposed to it and develop allergic contact dermatitis, they’re much more susceptible to repeat infections.

One of the biggest dangers associated with concrete burns is that once you realize you’re being burned, it’s too late. The damage to your skin has already been done and you need to seek medical treatment.

The key to concrete burn safety is remembering that burns are completely preventable. Prevention begins by becoming familiar with the hazards. Workers need to understand the potential for burns and the specific steps they can take to prevent them, such as wearing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE).

Gloves are particularly important, but not just any glove is suitable for preventing exposure to concrete. Rubber and poly/cotton gloves generally offer the greatest protection, with disposable gloves an effective alternative. Leather and cotton gloves are inadequate because they can easily become saturated with water and wet concrete, leading to exposure.

Wearing long-sleeve shirts with the sleeve tucked into the cuff of the glove (or taped to the glove) can protect the arms. Because many concrete workers perform tasks on their knees, rubber knee pads, knee guards, or kneeling boards are also important. A pair of solid rubber boots will protect the feet and lower legs, while safety glasses will keep splashes out of the eyes.

Besides using the correct PPE, it’s important to provide for worker hygiene at the site. Specifically, you want to ensure that workers have what they need to clean off any concrete that comes in contact with clothing or skin. The normal recommendation for cleaning is that the average person have about six to seven gallons available and they use a non-alkaline or pH-neutral soap and clean towels to dry. It is also extremely important that workers remove permeable clothing that becomes soiled with wet concrete and wash affected areas. Eye wash stations are also a must, and should be capable of providing flushing of eyes for 15 minutes.

Once a worker complains of a concrete burn, the best approach is to seek immediate medical treatment. Be sure to tell medical personnel that the worker has a burn caused by concrete so they can provide the proper care. Don’t try to relieve a concrete burn by spreading petroleum jelly or some kind of cream on it, because that may actually exacerbate the situation and make the problem worse.

It’s also important to have materials for first aid on the jobsite. I was particularly impressed with one contractor who assembled a simple kit for concrete burn prevention. They used an inexpensive tote and placed the materials workers would need inside. The kit included half a dozen white absorbent towels for cleaning, a bottle of white vinegar, a concrete burn neutralizing product called Neutralite, several pairs of socks in case wet concrete seeps into a worker’s boots, two large bottles of eyewash solution and a box of nitrile gloves. In addition, they included a copy of the safety data sheet for concrete and a short checklist reminding workers of what they needed to be mindful of when working with concrete.

A kit like that could be assembled for less than $50, providing inexpensive insurance to prevent a more serious injury, as well as serving as a visual reminder of the hazards associated with concrete.

Once again, though, the key to avoiding concrete burns is prevention, both through the use of appropriate PPE and ensuring proper hygiene on the worksite. Had the workers in the scenario that opened this story taken the time to use the right PPE and safer procedures, all of them could have avoided the pain (and hospitalization) caused by their desire to wrap up the job quickly.