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903 E. Ohio St., Indianapolis, IN 46202

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Safer Practices for Working Around Concrete

Many of the most famous structures of ancient times were constructed from a material we often think of us as modern. The workers who built them needed a material that could be shaped into blocks and other forms more easily than carving from stone. Finally, someone concocted a mixture of aggregate, water, and some type of cement to produce a material that became as hard and durable as stone once it cured.

Thanks to concrete’s strength and versatility, it continues to be one of our most important building materials. Over the years, chemists have experimented with formulations and additives to improve its consistency and durability. Today’s concrete is most often a combination of Portland cement (as a binder), sand, and gravel or crushed rocks. Admixtures are incorporated to provide specific properties. When this dry mixture is combined with water, it gradually solidifies.

As we have become accustomed with the many advantages of concrete, it’s easy to forget that both concrete itself and the methods used to form and move it carry inherent hazards. Below is a review the most common hazards associated with this common building material and recommendations to enhance workers’ safety.

Caustic Contents Cause Burns
Concrete has the potential to cause severe chemical burns to the skin and eyes before it cures, because cement is usually highly caustic. Cement also has a natural attraction to moisture, and can draw it out of exposed skin, which can lead to extreme dryness. Gloves and clothing offer some protection, but if they become wet, the chemical properties of the cement may seep right through them.

Waterproof gloves are a must when working with concrete and it’s also important to keep clothing dry. If clothes become wet because of exposure to wet concrete or environmental conditions such as rain, workers should change into dry clothing before proceeding. The abrasive properties of the sand used in concrete can also cause irritation. That’s why workers should wash hands and exposed skin thoroughly after working with concrete and use skin creams to reduce the effects of exposure.

Dastardly Dust
In its dry form, concrete is a fine, dust-like powder that can blow into the eyes or be inhaled into the lungs. That can cause irritation and even burns from the caustic contents. In addition, wet concrete may splatter into the face and eyes when being poured. To avoid these hazards, workers should use the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Depending upon the specific task, PPE for concrete may include eye protection and dust masks or respirators.

The potential for eye or lung irritation can be limited by reducing the amount of airborne dust through a change in the way a task is performed, or by improving ventilation in the work area.

Musculoskeletal Hazards
It’s obvious that cured concrete is extremely heavy, but it’s easy to forget that the components of concrete are also dense and heavy. Protecting against injuries to the back, shoulders, and other muscle groups demands the use of proper lifting procedures. When lifting heavy materials such as bags of dry concrete, keep your back straight, bend your legs, and remember not to twist your waist. The best prevention is often getting help from a fellow worker.
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When spreading or leveling poured concrete, it’s easier on your muscles to push it into position, rather than trying to lift it or pull it toward you with a shovel or a float. Allowing gravity to do most of the work reduces the potential for injuries and minimizes excess movement that can cause components of the concrete to separate out from the mixture.

Take steps to protect skin from contact with the wet concrete when finishing, such as through the use of waterproof pads. Again, if clothing becomes wet from contact with concrete, change into dry clothing to minimize the potential for skin irritation or chemical burns.

Preparing Properly
Before beginning a concrete project, be sure the site has been inspected for underground utilities. Using powered equipment to handle most of the digging will minimize stress and strain on muscles. If the forms will need shoring, verify that the sills can handle the load. A few moments spent inspecting the shoring before concrete is poured will reduce the possibility of problems. Forms and any shores should not be removed until the concrete has adequately cured and been tested for compressive strength.
Rebar and other reinforcing materials should be handled carefully. Be sure that rebar ends that present an impalement hazard are properly covered, and secure materials so they do not collapse or move when the concrete is poured. Use the correct cutting equipment for the type of reinforcement.

Finally, be careful with concrete buckets. Workers should not attempt to ride on them. Nor should workers be allowed to be underneath them when they are being raised or lowered. Plan a path for the buckets that will expose the smallest number of workers to any hazards.

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