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In concrete production, tough work conditions expose workers to a higher than average amount of dangerous activity. According to many people who monitor safety, it's only a matter of time before OSHA turns its attention to other health issues in the concrete production industry. For example, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been studying the relationship between allergic reactions and various chemicals found in fresh concrete. The American Portland Cement Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group, has correspondingly formed a committee of cement industry experts to also study the potential connection.

According to one expert, skin diseases account for 20% of all work-related diseases, with a yearly cost of $222 million to $1 billion. These same experts estimate that portland cement causes 25% of all work-related skin diseases.

Researchers Rob Wolford and Marilyn Larson, FOF Communications, Washington, D.C., caution producers that OSHA's inattention to the hand protection standard may be about to change. As OSHA policymakers refocus the agency's efforts toward health issues and incorporate some of the results now coming forth from NIOSH-funded research, concrete producers are advised to be ahead of the eventual enforcement activity by developing and implementing their own skin protection programs to meet the current standard. "Whether they [producers] recognize it or not, employees are suffering from skin irritation problems that can be prevented," says Wolford.

Wolford and Larson are developing data to support their claims of how widespread the problem of damaged skin is in the concrete production industry. They have been studying cement-related skin problems for several years.

With funding from NIOSH, they began by completing research for the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR), Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, NIOSH awarded CPWR a new grant to study the effectiveness of various techniques in eliminating irritant dermatitis related to working with fresh concrete. The empirical research will study how the skin of several human subjects, working in a number of work environments, responds to different protection techniques.

This past March, Wolford and Larson presented that showed how chemical buffers-more than traditional work practices-benefit the skin condition of employees who work around concrete.

A recent FOF-managed study found that more than half of 49 drivers who worked for a Midwestern ready-mix producer reported one or more skin-related symptoms in the previous 30 days. The survey was conducted before a field test in which the ready-mix truck drivers who complained of hand problems were allowed to test the effectiveness of a new buffering agent after 30 days. Drivers who used a buffering solution were nearly eight times more likely to report improvements than were drivers who did not use it. Just as important, drivers who used the solution without a buffer reported no change in their hands, even though they had been following company procedures.

Other drivers using other skin protection methods reported improvements only if they used the buffer solution in addition to other controls such as gloves, moisturizing creams, and frequent hand washing.

FOF research strongly indicates that concrete production employees are suffering skin problems that can be effectively improved with the use of a buffering agent.