Although drywall is generally thought of as a relatively safe construction material, the silica dust released when cutting and sanding takes place creates a significant health risk for installers and demolition crews.
Drywall sheets and the compounds used in joints contain elements such as talc, calcite, mica, gypsum, silica, and even high-risk items such as mercury. When these sometimes-toxic particles are inhaled, upper respiratory conditions such as asthma and lung cancer can result. In addition, products imported from China have put workers in harm’s way due to excessive use of sulfur and other contaminants. And workers who come in contact with old joint compounds are routinely exposed to asbestos.
Those are critical reasons why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandated workplace regulations. Companies that install, remove, and manufacture drywall are also expected to meet the OSHA silica standard for drywall and implement best practice policies to minimize worker risk. By understanding how much exposure to drywall dust is dangerous, safe dust collection methods, and the proper use of personal protective clothing and equipment, safety measures can be implemented to avoid unnecessary negative health effects for working people.
What is Drywall?
Used as a façade for interior walls and ceilings, drywall typically comes in sheets measuring 4x8 feet or 4x12 feet. The relatively inexpensive home and commercial building product is typically comprised of a powdery white material known as calcium sulfate dihydrate (gypsum), hardened between thick paper. In the construction sector, select crews usually hang drywall and tape and plaster the seams between sheets. Once dry, these workers circle back and sand seams and edges releasing a fine airborne dust during the process. Depending on the region, the drywall may be known by a wide range of names that include the following.
- Sheet Rock
- Gypsum Board
- Buster Board
- Custard Board
- Gypsum Panel
It’s not uncommon for drywall products to include other outlying materials such as fiber, glass wool, and others. The elements introduced into a drywall product are often driven by manufacturers creating products with increased resistance to fire, mold growths, and deterioration from moisture.
Common Types of Drywall Used in Construction
Construction crews usually work with different types of drywall designed for specialized purposes. Manufacturers have simplified these types by applying a mostly uniform color-coding system. While matching the correct color of drywall to a room or project seems efficient, those who handle the following products would be wise to understand they may include additives.
- Gray Drywall: Identified by the grayish paper seal running along the thin side, this ranks among the most commonly employed. This type does not necessarily include unique additives because gray drywall is for general purposes.
- Green Drywall: Typically used in moist environments prone to mold growths, this material usually comes with thicker green paper on each side. Wax tends to be the key additive used to reduce mold.
- Purple Drywall: This product outpaces many others in terms of sturdiness and moisture resistance. Users can anticipate it to include higher percentages of additives to achieve fire, moisture, and abrasion resistance.
Other drywall products used in residential and commercial construction include fire-rated and sound-dampening capabilities, among others. To a large degree, these building materials may only differ in terms of thickness or double-layering. But the primary concern of blue-collar workers who handle drywall involves the hazards associated with drywall installation additives.
Is Drywall Made From Hazardous Elements?
Although governmental health and workplace safety organizations helped reduce the more dangerous ingredients in new drywall, installers and demolition crews remain at risk. The hazards associated with drywall installation and demolition are heightened when working with older materials.
As an example, China reportedly flooded the market with drywall that released high levels of sulfur gas in 2009. People living in homes with Chinese drywall reported significant health problems ranging from nosebleeds to difficulty breathing. It wasn’t until 2015 that the federal Drywall Safety Act of 2012 went into effect. The Drywall Safety Act mandates that manufacturers do not exceed 10 parts per million of sulfur.
Heavy metals also rank among the pervasive health hazards faced by construction sector workers. Gypsum remains a core drywall manufacturing material that lacks consistency in terms of hazardous elements. Drywall routinely includes heavy metals and mercury is widely considered among the most dangerous. Products with origins in coal waste, for example, may possess mercury levels 10 times higher than others. This neurotoxin has proven particularly problematic in synthetically made drywall products.
An expansive view of drywall usage and health naturally leads to a consideration of peripheral products. The joint compound used to fill in seams and cracks may include stunningly hazardous materials. Carcinogens such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are routinely coupled with crystalline silica. When inhaled, these highly potent agents can damage the lungs and pose a significant health risk from skin contact.
How Much Exposure to Drywall Dust is Dangerous?
Any discussion about how much exposure to drywall dust is dangerous must start with an understanding of who is at risk. What is interesting about drywall is that it follows a somewhat unique and industry-specific course. Many of the potentially dangerous elements come from mining operations and are processed into drywall at manufacturing plants.
The United States remained the world’s largest miner of gypsum in recent years, producing upwards of 22 million metric tons in 2020. The U.S. also ranks among the leaders in drywall manufacturing year over year. That means an increased number of plant workers may be exposed to hazardous elements. But what makes drywall a somewhat unique risk is that installation is usually reserved for specialized workers.
According to construction data, drywall and insulation installers exceed $63.5 billion in market size, including more than 133,000 businesses. This niche industry is expected to experience 4.9 percent growth in 2021 and typically outpaces other construction sector occupations. That’s a lot of boots-on-the-ground people who come in contact with drywall silica dust every day.
What are the OSHA Drywall Dust Regulations?
Drywall sheets generally pose a low health and safety risk unless broken or manipulated. That’s largely because they are self-contained sheets, and the brittle gypsum elements are secured with paper lining. But once the installer begins cutting and snapping off portions of the sheet, airborne particles are created. This unavoidable aspect of drywall installation means that every job site will generate dust that can be inhaled or land on clothing that results in transfers.
In response to this workplace health and safety risk, OSHA carved out regulations to minimize exposure to drywall dust. The OSHA silica standard for drywall restricts permissible exposure limits (PELs) to 50 micrograms per cubic feet of air over an 8-hour shift. The following best practices are also mandated.
- Educate drywall installers and demolition crews about the risks of harmful dust.
- Employers are tasked with a responsible plan to minimize exposure to this type of silica dust.
- Isolate spaces that involve cutting and sanding from others with barriers.
- Collect dust at the source by using tools with built-in vacuums and standalone equipment.
- Deploy pole sanders to create a space between workers and dust origins.
- Drywall silica dust must always be vacuumed and never swept.
- Employ an OSHA-approved HEPA filter vacuum to maximize dust control.
- Workers must always wear appropriate personal protective clothing and equipment.
It’s essential for workers and drywall installation supervisors to understand that the silica dust generated can cause significant health issues. The most common involves harming lung tissue. But hand to mouth and eye transfers can also result in toxins such as mercury entering the body.
What PPE is Recommended for Protection When Handling Drywall?
Crafting a workplace health and safety policy to minimize drywall silica risk may appear fairly straightforward. One might think that passing out protective breathing masks and vacuuming regularly would suffice. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Decision-makers who want to take diligent steps to ensure team members avoid adverse health outcomes may be best served by treating drywall silica with the same respect as asbestos. Although not as deadly as asbestos, prolonged exposure can result in damaged lungs and organs. And given specialized crews typically work with drywall installations on a regular basis, long-term exposure seems inevitable. The following personal protective clothing and equipment are considered industry standards.
- Breathable Masks: Companies are advised to maintain a significant number of disposable masks at all times.
- Coveralls: Disposable protective wear that delivers full coverage of the torso and extremities prevent drywall silica dust from accumulating on ordinary work clothes and skin. Usage prevents exposure and workers carrying toxins home on their reusable/ non-disposable protective clothing.
- Eye Wear: Protective goggles remain a construction industry standard. Just as particles can harm the lungs when inhaled, other organs are at risk when these elements enter the body through the eyes.
- Full Head Protection: Suitable headgear is generally advisable to keep silica dust from landing on the head, hair, and inside the ears. Wearing coveralls with hoodies ranks among the preferred safety methods.
- Foot Coverings: Dust builds up on work boots and footwear perhaps more easily than any other part of the body. Foot coverings allow workers to dispose of the dust accumulations as needed and help prevent the spread of this dust to other areas.
It’s essential for manufacturing plants, demolition crews, and drywall installation businesses to maintain a complete inventory of disposable personal protective clothing and gear. Best practices also dictate that workers have a defined area to store street clothes and a separate space to strip off and dispose of dust-covered protective wear. International Enviroguard manufacturers and distributes a complete line of disposable protective clothing that exceeds OSHA standards regarding drywall dust.