The guys I learned my trade from were mostly World War II veterans and tough as nails. They showed up early, worked hard and could always be counted on to take care of business. But many of them failed to take care of their skin and developed what was commonly called “cement poisoning.”

The correct term is “contact dermatitis” and it can be caused, among other things, from a reaction to a compound found in Portland cement, specifically Hexavalent Chromium. Hex Chrome exposure is estimated to account for 25 percent of all work-related skin problems worldwide.

Some common sense best practices to help prevent skin damage while working with Portland cement:

Wear gloves: Gloves provide a water-proof barrier between your skin and Portland cement. Even incidental exposure over a life time of work can cause serious consequences.

Keep your hands clean and dry: When you put on gloves, make sure your hands don’t have any cement on them. When you remove your gloves, do so carefully and by the cuffs, keeping your fingers free from exposure.

Wash with clean water and low pH soap: Washing your hands in the same water bucket you used to clean your tools is the surest way to mess up your skin, yet if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen guys do this I could have retired in my thirties. When you clean up for the day, use clean water (if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t use it). Portland cement is very alkaline, so look for a low pH soap or a pH buffering solution to help bring back the pH of your skin to its normal levels. Some of the old-timers would use a diluted vinegar solution (I won’t mention what else they did here when they got in the shower, but they claimed it worked).

Change your clothes on the job and wash them separately: Work clothes contained dry material will easily dust off on your car, in your house and anywhere you wear them. You should remove them at the jobsite and put them inside a trash bag or plastic tub with a lid to transport home. You should also wash them separately from your other clothes (a cap full a vinegar in the wash water helps to even out the pH of the fabric, making it last longer).

I think back to my days as an apprentice and remember seeing guys with a cigarette hanging from their lips, no gloves, skin as rough as sand paper and thinking to myself, “Is that going to be me in a few years?” I thank my lucky stars that an old guy by the name of Dale Albers took me under his wing and insisted I put on a pair of gloves saying, “Your wife will appreciate it.”

For more information on Hexavalent Chromium and Portland Cement, use the following websites below: