Chemical Usage and Safety


Words: Steve Hansen 
Photo: fcafotodigital

Chemistry plays a huge role in nearly every facet of life, just as it does in the masonry industry. Without thousands of useful chemicals in use daily, we’d struggle to do the work we do and keep the world moving forward. From material production to site cleanup, a variety of chemicals keeps our industry productive.

Many chemicals have the potential to be dangerous if not used correctly, especially in how they affect human health. That said, each chemical has a proper use as detailed by its manufacturer. When we know how to manage a chemical and we follow the manufacturer’s instructions, working with chemical products can be safe. 

Jake Boyer, Group Leader with chemical manufacturer Prosoco, maker of hard-surface care products, masonry cleaners, paint remover, and high-performance coatings, amongst other construction products, talked with Masonry Magazine about chemical usage and safety. Boyer’s foremost recommendation for contractors is to read and follow the safety data sheet (SDS), formerly called the material data safety sheet, or MSDS.

Always Read the SDS

“First off, any product that still has an MSDS is technically not compliant with today's regulations,” he said. Several years ago, the MSDS was converted to the SDS. “That was a global shift that was supposed to have taken place for everybody but I know a lot of manufacturers still haven't caught up to that,” he noted. 

An SDS is a document that a manufacturer, distributor, or importer of a chemical product is required to provide to users such as mason contractors. For a mason contractor, it’s crucial that each worker handling a chemical knows the proper way to use, handle, and store all chemicals. The safety data sheet provides that information.

“The best thing you can do is always refer to the datasheet,” he continued. “Recognize the fact that manufacturers don't write those just to keep themselves busy or out of trouble. They write them to help keep you out of trouble.” In addition, the SDS will list other precautions such as personal protective equipment and contacts such as the representative of the organization that you're buying products from. It’s a great idea to confer with your sales rep to make sure they're okay with the application, Boyer said. 

A different document, a product data sheet, Boyer said, may also include some safety information, but you should focus on the SDS for safety information. “Most products are going to err on the side of caution in the safety data sheet...and direct you to use proper gloves and face shields or goggles,” Boyer told Masonry. Product data sheets may not have as thorough of information as a safety data sheet.

In addition to reading and following the SDS for all chemicals you use, Boyer recommends always running a test panel for each chemical and surface. 

“When it comes to cleaning, obviously different substrates and different materials, they're going to have different reactions,” Boyer said, “and that really determines the type of cleaner needed for the job.” If you're using a solvent of some sort, for example, that particular solvent may work really well on one surface but if you get it on an adjacent substrate, it could result in some adverse reactions.

Even if you’ve used the product on that type of surface in the past, it’s still a good idea to run a test on the current site. You should also test the product on any adjacent surfaces where you don’t intend to apply the chemical, as you “may get splash and wind drift or rundown or whatever it may be,” Boyer said. Even if you have a surface masked, there’s a possibility of a liquid product seeping under the masking and affecting the surface in an unintended fashion. Surprises are unwelcome, so it’s a good idea to test first.

“For example, on polished limestone, you wouldn't want to use a material that’s highly acidic or corrosive,” Boyer noted. “As far as protective treatments go, the test panel is typically used to determine the proper coverage rates and application,” he added. For cleaning, a test panel can also help you determine the proper dilution and dwell time for that surface and avoid a dilution that’s too aggressive.

The test panel tells you “basically everything you need to know about how you're going to successfully apply that material to the larger scale building, and help you determine coverage rate,” Boyer said.

When choosing products, Boyer suggests working only with manufacturers that have current and compliant documentation for their products, as well as field support for customers and workers in the field. Phone support can be crucial, as well, so “You're not being held up and you're not leaving anything to chance or guessing and hoping for the best,” Boyer said.

Misconceptions About Acids and Alkalines

Misconceptions about chemicals in the construction industry abound, he added. “I'd say one of the biggest misconceptions is the effects of an acidic material on masonry substrates or other substrates.” When people hear the term “acid” they tend to think of the “monster” in the “Alien” sci-fi movies with acid for blood that is powerful enough to eat through the metal-alloy hull of the ship.

Around the house, we all have many common substances that can be acidic or alkaline. Our own stomachs contain hydrochloric acid. Common household cleaners and foods and drinks like red wine and Coca-Cola are also acidic, Boyer said. 

“In reality, there are certain acids that are very corrosive and can cause a number of detrimental effects but at the end of the day acid is still the most effective material to dissolve anything that's alkaline,” Boyer said. Many components of masonry such as mortar smears are alkaline and so the most effective substance to break that down is something acidic.

Think of acidic and alkaline like hot and cold water, he says. With 7 being true neutral on the pH scale, if you’ve got something on the acidic side (cold water), then the most effective way to get it to neutral is to add hot water, and vice versa. 

Within each product classification, there are different levels of strengths and purity, according to Boyer, and they’re intended for different uses. In the last few decades, manufacturers have developed many new products to replace muriatic acid, for example. 

“Muriatic acid is hydrochloric acid, but not all hydrochloric acid is what we commonly referred to as muriatic acid. Muriatic acid for a long time was the only option as far as cleaning masonry. We came out with a new masonry cleaner back in the late 1940s to early 1950s, and that was the first thing outside of muriatic acid to clean masonry. Today we use the highest purity food-grade acids that are available for our products.” 

Many mason contractors have used muriatic acid for this use for decades, not realizing that it’s a waste product of the steel industry and there are many newer and better choices. After use in steel-making refinement, the runoff muriatic acid is recycled, bottled, and sold, Boyer explains, and is “very inconsistent in strength and purity. And you never really know what you're getting even out of two bottles of the same brand or even out of the same box.” 

There’s no longer any reason for mason contractors to use muriatic acid, Boyer added, as newer products have been developed specifically for masonry work that clean masonry surfaces while reducing and eliminating the drawbacks of muriatic acid. “Just make sure that you're using a product specifically intended for the task at hand,” he noted.

People also don’t realize that alkalis can be just as damaging to human health as acids can be, Boyer said. Bleach and drain cleaner, for example, are highly caustic and, like strong acids, should only be used with proper personal protective equipment (PPE), which can be found on the SDS.  

PPE Misconceptions Are Common

Boyer noted nonuse and misuse of personal protective equipment as common in the construction industry. Many tasks in masonry construction require gloves, eye protection, face protection, skin protection, and respiratory protection, but not every worker follows the SDS, or is instructed how to do so. Respirator use in particular can be spotty, Boyer contends.

“I've seen on countless occasions guys out spraying products without any protective equipment on and depending on what you're using, it can be harmful if not deadly,” he said. “But these products are perfectly safe with the appropriate precautions taken.” His recommendation, again, is to “follow that safety data sheet to a tee and you should be safe.”

Has the Pandemic Affected Chemical Usage and Safety?

According to Boyer, the pandemic has had little effect on the masonry industry regarding chemical usage and safety. Paper and cloth masks and bandannas and buffs are not sufficient in workplace situations that call for a respirator or face shield, so companies that were compliant with safety protocols pre-pandemic didn’t need to change that aspect of work.

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