In the construction industry, workers deal with drywall on a routine basis. They install it and tear it out when necessary. Unfortunately, both the drywall itself and the joint compound (mud) used contain hazardous substances. Short- and long-term exposure to drywall dust can cause adverse health consequences.
What Is Drywall Dust?
After installers attach drywall to the studs of a wall, they fill in the seams with joint compound, wait for the compound to dry, and sand the area to create a smooth surface for painting. The sanding process forces small particles of drywall and joint compound into the air creating drywall dust.
The dust may contain substances including gypsum, talc, mica, silica, and calcite – ingredients known to cause health issues when inhaled. Gypsum can irritate mucus membranes and the respiratory system. Talc or talcum powder can irritate the respiratory system, damage the lungs, and can contribute to the development of cancer. Exposure to powdered mica can lead to fibrosis of the lungs and long-term respiratory difficulties. Silica can cause a dangerous condition called silicosis and other health conditions. Calcite contains calcium carbonate, another substance associated with silicosis.
Short-term exposure to drywall dust irritates the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. Dusty construction sites can create coughing spasms, throat irritation, and breathing difficulties. Long-term exposure increases the risk for more serious health conditions associated with the dust ingredients.
Employer Responsibilities and Drywall Dust
Employers are responsible for providing a safe, OSHA-compliant workplace. Part of that responsibility involves ensuring drywall finishers have access to reasonable safety equipment and appropriate training. Respiratory protection masks, glasses, and dust collection systems can all minimize a worker’s exposure to harmful substances. Many joint compounds on the market today meet OSHA’s latest silica PEL (a maximum of .05 mg/m3 of respirable crystalline silica) to further reduce the risk of exposure.
When employers fail to comply with OSHA standards, to recognize the known risks of drywall dust, and to reasonably protect their employees from exposure, they may face legal responsibility for resulting illnesses and deaths. The dangers of drywall dust are clear, and drywall finishers have the right to a reasonably safe work environment.
Exposure to Drywall Dust in the Workplace
Drywall finishers can report work environment hazards to OSHA without fear of reprisal. Formal complaints can initiate long-term changes in a workplace and protect all employees from unnecessary exposure to hazardous substances.
If you receive a diagnosis associated with drywall dust exposure, take the following actions:
- Record everything. If possible, take pictures of the dusty environment, the ingredients list on joint compound containers, and the lack of safety equipment onsite. Keep copies of medical bills, transportation receipts, treatment recommendations, and relevant medical records associated with your illness.
- Report the illness. Report the illness to your employer. Unless you are an independent contractor, the illness should qualify for benefits through your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance policy.
- Discuss your options with an attorney. A serious drywall dust-related illness may prevent you from ever working again or enjoying the same quality of life. A Kansas City work injury attorney can help you secure fair workers’ compensation benefits and file relevant third-party claims for compensation. Your attorney can provide invaluable guidance after a serious and preventable diagnosis.
Drywall dust is harmful when inhaled in large quantities and over long periods. Use this information to advocate for safer construction conditions and to protect your own right to compensation if you develop an occupational illness as the result of exposure.