One of the most common misconceptions about chemicals is that they aren’t harmful as, say, falling from a mast climber or hitting yourself with a nail gun. That’s one reason chemicals don’t come up in conversations about safety as much as incidents with machinery or equipment. This type of disregard often leads to masons ignoring usage instructions or PPE requirements or not communicating about chemicals at all. Chemicals are an integral component of the safety conversation, though. And like any good relationship, it starts with communication.   

Communication is the easiest step in preventing hospitalizations and violations caused by chemical safety incidents. Failure to communicate about chemicals is commonly cited and often repeat violation. In fact, as of early September, OSHA listed nine repeat violations of chemical failure to communicate about chemicals, compared to six in 2017 and three in 2016.  

What are the top chemical safety violations among the masonry industry?  

  1. Hazard communication (277 thus far in 2018)
  2. Presence of respirable crystalline silica (196 so far this year)
  3. Presence of asbestos (10 in 2018, which is an increase over the four violations cited in 2017)
  4. Presence of Methylene Chloride (4 citations— a curious fact considering there haven’t been any citations regarding failure to abide by safety around this chemical since the two citations in 2014).

OSHA’s website, of course, contains easily accessible information about how to monitor the air at a worksite for these chemicals. For instance, OSHA tells us methylene chloride is also known as dichloromethane. This volatile, colorless liquid has a chloroform-like odor and is used in several processes and among many industries: paint stripping, metal cleaning and degreasing, adhesives manufacturing and use, polyurethane foam production, polycarbonate resin production, and solvent distribution and formulation, among others.  

Inhalation and skin contact are the predominant means of exposure to this chemical, which OSHA considers potential carcinogen. Short-term exposure may result in confusion, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, and headache, OSHA reports. Prolonged exposure may irritate the eyes and respiratory tract. Methylene chloride may worsen symptoms of angina and skin exposure to the liquid form may cause irritation or chemical burns. 

It’s impossible to avoid chemicals though so the next steps involve developing awareness of PPE to use/wear around those chemicals and conveying proper education about chemical cleanup and disposal. 

Safety Data Sheets 

Safety Data Sheets (SDS) are an integral part of a mason contractor’s safety kit. Chemicals have usage and safety requirements that are specific to the particular product, so it’s important to read through the SDS. Typically, they will outline the process for handling, usage, cleanup, and disposal. Most commercial projects also include these procedures as part of the project safety process to ensure total compliance. Mason contractors should take the information contained in the SDS seriously, as well as follow the instructions included in the product data sheet and packaging. They should also never assume they know what each chemical does before thoroughly reading up on any updated materials. There is always a potential that a chemical may have unfamiliar characteristics that could be problematic and dangerous. Mason contractors are encouraged to work with their materials supplier to understand what chemicals they will be working with and why these are needed.  

 All cleanup and disposal should follow the protocol outlined in the SDS in place for the project. When prepping the project area for installation, workers should try to contain the area where the products are being used to avoid exposing adjacent areas to chemicals.  

Consider this SDS example about masonry cements. Dangers and warnings appear as early as the second section of the form. The language is clear and forthright, and visibly demanding.  

“WARNING! CONTACT WITH WET OR DRY MASONRY CEMENTS IS DANGEROUS AND MAY CAUSE SEVERE SKIN IRRITATION, CHEMICAL BURNS, AS WELL AS DAMAGE TO HUMAN TISSUE, INCLUDING EYES AND OTHER ORGANS. IN ADDITION, BREATHING CEMENT DUST OVER A PERIOD OF TIME MAY IN SOME CASES RESULT IN CANCER AND OTHER DISEASES.” 

The SDS doubles and triples down on its commitment to communicate about the dangers possible by restating certain facts in multiple ways: 

 “Causes severe skin burns and eye damage. 

May cause an allergic skin reaction. 

May cause respiratory irritation (Inhalation). May cause cancer (inhalation).”  

Now, as industry experts, we know that cement dust and wet cement can cause injuries if they are inhaled, come into contact with eyes or skin, or are ingested. The SDS goes on to explain that the lungs, stomach, intestines, or other internal organs can possibly be affected by the product. Dust may irritate or swell eyes and impair vision. Exposure can cause conjunctivitis and inflame the inner eyelid and the eyeball. Contact with wet masonry cements, such as unhardened cement, mortar, or slurries, may result in caustic burns to the eyes. 

Now that we’ve been informed about what chemical is or may be on a site and we’ve been warned about its potential hazards, so what’s next? Prevention. The sheets help masons avoid these hazards— not because some random guy writing these SDS was overzealous but because the chemical poses bona fide safety threats.  

PPE 

Incident and injury prevention require personal protective equipment (PPE). This section of the SDS outlines appropriate clothing and equipment that protect us from dangers such as chemical burns or inhalation. In the case of this cement, we’re advised to wear protective safety glasses as a minimum safety provision. Impervious clothing, waterproof gloves, and waterproof knee pads and boots more robustly protect workers and help cover all the OSHA bases.        

But let’s go back to the Methylene Chloride example. Those working around this chemical have three major PPE components: splash-proof safety goggles, respirators, and impervious clothing. Respirators may be used to control exposure in certain conditions, according to an OSHA SDS for this chemical. Those conditions include “when engineering and work practice controls are not feasible, when such controls are in the process of being installed, or when these controls fail and need to be supplemented.”  

But not just any respirator will do. Acceptable types include supplied-air respirators approved by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Air-purifying respirators, on the other hand, do not provide adequate respiratory protection against MC, the OSHA SDS indicates.  

Masons working around MC should also don impervious clothing, gloves, eight-inch face shields (minimum), and other appropriate protective clothing. If the chemical comes into contact with the clothing, the clothing should be removed, placed in a regulated area, and not re-worn until it’s been deemed fit for reuse.   

Methylene chloride requires safety practices beyond PPE.  

For instance, “All work with methylene chloride should be conducted in a chemical fume hood (that has been tested by the EHS within the last 12 months) or in another type of appropriate exhaust ventilation,” according to the University of Iowa’s Environmental Health and Safety department. Workers should also not eat, drink, smoke or store food around areas where the chemical is stored or used.  

OSHA advises furthermore not to wear contact lenses when working with the stuff.  

So What Do You Do If…? 

Another important SDS section features emergency aid methods. Measures typically discussed are identified by eye or skin contact, inhalation or ingestion, and warnings of lesser symptoms to beware of to prevent full bodily damage. In the case of Methylene Chloride, here is what Iowa’s  

EHS SDS advises:  

“Immediately and thoroughly wash with soap and water all areas of the body that come into contact with methylene chloride. Know the location and proper operation of safety showers in your immediate work area.”  

Of course, as is the case with many other chemicals, if a worker breathes in large amounts of MC, he or she should be promptly moved into fresh air. If that worker isn’t breathing, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and keep him/her warm and at rest. Then get medical attention as swiftly as possible.   

In the Air Tonight  

Chemicals can be nebulous. Some are substances. Others are gases. They may have properties that require different fire-fighting techniques, materials, and methods for cleanup and containment, handling and storage methods. They also vary in stability and reactivity qualities. That’s what makes them incompatible with other substances.  

In the cement example, the SDS describe the product as a stable chemical that must be kept dry. We’re reminded that cements mixed with water release heat and produce a strong alkaline solution. If an improper acid is used, however, that solution could release toxic gases or vapors. For instance, this particular product should be kept a distance away from aluminum metals and ammonium salts because contact with them results in hydrogen gas, which, of course, is highly flammable. 

Concern for chemical safety also includes times when the chemical is not in use. Think of storage areas. Any regulatory agency or chemical manufacturer will admit it’s mandatory to keep chemical storage areas clean and orderly and to have a leak and spill detection program, especially to detect sources of emissions. Because MC has a high vapor pressure, for example, it should be stored in “plain, galvanized or lead lined, mild steel containers in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight, heat source and acute fire hazards,” OSHA’s online SDS states.  

Check out the SDS for further information on shipping, firefighting, spills/leaks, and disposal.  

Alternatives  

These sheets also provide information about a chemical’s effects on the environment. Consider using alternatives such as low volatile organic compound (VOC) products. For example, many water-based products make better, or at least less harmful alternatives to solvent-based materials. Materials suppliers can suggest products that are less toxic to users and the environment, which aid in promoting sustainable living.

Words: Arthur Mintie, LATICRETE Sr. Director, Technical Services and Nichole L. Reber