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OHS and cement as a hazardous chemical substance

    • The definition of a hazardous substance can be any substance whether a solid, liquid or gas that may cause harm to your health
    • The Occupational Health and Safety Act, regulation 1179, dated 24 August 1995, states that Portland cement is considered a hazardous chemical
    • Before any cement work is started the appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE) and first aid measures should be readily available

“The definition of a hazardous substance can be any substance whether a solid, liquid or gas that may cause harm to your health. Hazardous substances are classified on the basis of their potential health effects, whether acute (that is an immediate effect on your body) or chronic (long term effects on a person’s body),” says Coetzee.

“In this presentation, I am focusing on cement as a hazardous substance. Does it mean one needs to have hazardous substance stores and bund walls and more? Not necessarily. The definition says that a hazardous substance is classified on the basis of the potential health effects. When we class a hazardous substance, there are certain protocols that are needed to be put in place according to the regulations. This is based on:

    • The OHS Act (the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993)
    • The hazardous chemical substance regulations, and
    • The manufacturer’s guidelines on what we should be doing when it comes to the actual handling, usage and storage of this type of substance

“For this presentation I have utilised the Lafarge Cement website, an obviously widely known company manufacturing Portland cement – so this information is taken directly from the manufacturers. Right in the beginning of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), Lafarge refers to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. In particular, it looks at regulation 1179, dated 24 August 1995, stating that Portland cement is considered a hazardous chemical, and all manufacturers and sellers of this product must provide an appropriate MSDS to users and other potentially affected parties. That would include emergency services.

“The reason for that is because if somebody is exposed to this type of chemical, they need to know what the first aid or emergency measures are to assist somebody in the situation. The categories of information supplied in this MSDS are laid down in the regulations, according to SA National Standards (SANS) The SANS standard is what regulates the information that goes into providing an accurate MSDS, which ensures that the chemical compound in this instance as contained within the MSDS is both accurate and helps one to understand the most up to date health implications,” says Coetzee.

“Remember, we are talking about the potential acute or chronic harm, that is both the immediate effect that this chemical could have on us, or the long-term impact it could have. We could use the illustration of the chemical, asbestos, many years ago which was widely used in mines and in construction – and in fact some asbestos is still worked at the moment. Earlier, we didn’t fully understand the medical issues that asbestos had an acute effect as well as a chronic effect on people. The long-term effects of asbestos, as we now know, is cancer of the lungs and eventually fatality – so it is a very dangerous substance to work around.

“If we look at cement and consider whether this could be the next dangerous substance that we might be working with, having a long term or chronic effect on the workers. Let’s take a look at what the manufacturer says: ‘We recommend that you continually remind your staff that a vital part of planning any job is to assess for safety precautions that will be necessary. Then, before any cement work is started the appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE) and first aid measures should be readily available’.

“So here is Lafarge stating that health and safety is an extremely important part of using their product. First of all, they’ve given us the MSDS to understand the chemical compound and whether it contains carcinogens or things that cause cancer, and whether it poses an immediate threat or long-term threat. The MSDS states: ‘Exposure to cement dust can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and upper respiratory system’. This is an acute effect, in other words, it happens immediately. So as soon as you’re exposed to this type of cement dust, this is what will happen almost immediately when exposed to it. It’s a ‘irritation’, and irritation is not necessarily something that’s going to cause you major or significant damage. But in the event of skin contact, it will result in moderate irritation to thickening and cracking of the skin [through] to severe skin damage from chemical burn,” says Coetzee.

“Why do they describe it as ‘chemical burn’? This is because of the chemical ingredients of the cement. Sometimes caustic soda is used in cement, and when it builds up inside the nose or eyes or the throat or the upper respiratory system, it can eventually cause chemical burns, even on the outside of your skin. Specifically relating to the eyes, one often sees pictures of people in a dusty environment with a dust mask on. It is to be applauded that they’ve done their risk assessment, got their safety files, been trained and know what to do when working with cement – but what of goggles?

“The MSDS says: ‘If you’re exposed to airborne dust, it may cause immediate or delayed irritation or inflammation. Eye contact by larger amounts of dry powder, or splashes of wet Portland cement may cause effects ranging from moderate eye irritation to chemical burns and blindness. Now there is not a single piece of PPE that can replace your eyesight. So yes, people working with cement protect their lungs and noses by wearing masks but draw the line at goggles.

Coetzee adds: “This is because they [are prone to] mist up, are a bit too uncomfortable and we cannot see exactly what we’re doing all the time. Workers have to keep taking them off, keep wiping them keep and putting them back on. Well, you cannot take risks with your eyes. When you have moderate eye irritation it may take some time to be able to regain your full eyesight. After getting chemical burns, you may lose some of your eyesight, or even experience long-term damage to the actual eye, with the potential ranging up to eventual blindness. That is the danger or hazard associated with cement. Consequently, workers should put on the correct type of PPE (goggles) as well as know the correct type of first aid measures beforehand. This is something to think about for those of you who are using cement on site.

“The MSDS continues: ‘A single short term exposure to dry powder is not likely to cause serious harm, but exposure of significant duration can cause serious, potentially irreversible tissue destruction to skin or eye in the form of chemical or caustic burns’. A worker might be using it only once or twice in a duration of work but should be aware that a prolonged exposure can eventually start building up and cause serious irreversible tissue destruction.

“Now you need to take a look at the type of work you’re doing. Make sure it is task specific. How often are you working with cement? What is the duration in the day that you’re working with cement? And what type of exposure levels are you allowing as acceptable on your site? We’re looking at ‘acceptable risk’ as one is not going to be able to limit all exposure – there will inevitably have to be some level of exposure to this chemical while working with it. But what precautions can be put in place? Does the contractor have training and the knowledge to understand the dangers and hazards associated with this type of chemical? Has it provided the right type of PPE, not just safety glasses but the right type of safety glasses for this particular type of cement? Tissue destruction can occur if a wet or moist areas of the body are exposed for sufficient duration to dry Portland cement. And this obviously is inside the eyes, the mouth as well as the nose which are the areas that need to constantly watch, because this is the entry point of this dangerous chemical substance,” says Coetzee.

“What are the first aid measures if this does happen to an employee from a substance like Portland cement or any other cement that they may be using? The MSDS gives the first aid measures: ‘If it’s in your eyes, immediately flush eyes thoroughly with water, and continue doing this with running clean water’. This is not water in a bucket that you’re constantly splashing up and down. It has to be clean running water for at least 15 minutes, including under the eyelids, trying to remove all particles that can be seen or felt inside they eyes – and call for medical assistance immediately.

“This is especially so if this minor irritation is turning into a moderate irritation. In this event, it could lead to long term, more severe injury in the future. If it’s on the skin then just wash the skin with cool water, and pH neutral soap, or a mild detergent. Please be careful when selecting the detergent – one doesn’t want anything that will create a chemical burn on the hand.

“Seek medical treatment in all cases of prolonged exposure to wet cement. If someone has been constantly working with wet cement in and around their environment – that is each and every single day, or if it is constantly happening on a specific job that they might be working with over a prolonged period of time – when they inhale any of this dust, remove that person to fresh air as soon as possible. Seek medical help if the individual is coughing and other symptoms do not subside,” says Coetzee.

“If after a few hours or a day or two the coughing is still continuing, and the person has inhaled large amounts of wet cement, they might need urgent medical attention. Remember, this is going into their lungs potentially, and hardening or damaging the inside of the lungs or respiratory tract that could cause potentially long-term injuries. If it is ingested, do not induce vomiting. If they are conscious, have the victim drink plenty of water and then call for medical assistance as soon as possible.

“In summary, if it is a mild irritation, it can be handled as a first aid measure on your own on site. As a first aider, monitor the patient. If potentially more serious, take that person for medical assistance as soon as possible. Rather get a medical doctor to have a look.

“This is all in the interest of getting the best health and safety treatment when working with dangerous substances. We know one cannot eliminate all hazards and risks on site. What we can do is plan and prepare for the types of work that we are doing by protecting ourselves and our staff, our employees, and those who may be affected around us by their use of cement,” says Coetzee.

Written by Eamonn Ryan based on an IOPSA Toolbox Talk presentation by Chris Coetzee – director of OHS Savvy Consulting (Pty) Ltd, HSE Member of IOPSA and Technical Member of SAIOSH

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