Generating dust on a construction site is a hazard of the profession. Workers sanding drywall joint compound may have the greatest exposure. They can be exposed to large concentrations of dusts and possibly silica as joint compounds are made from a variety of components such as talc, calcite, mica, gypsum, and silica. Some of these ingredients have been linked with mild to moderate eye, nose, throat, and respiratory tract irritation. However, continually breathing the dust from drywall joint compounds may cause severe throat and airway irritation, coughing, and breathing difficulties. Smokers or workers with sinus or respiratory problems are at risk for even greater health problems. When silica is present, workers may be exposed to an increased risk of silicosis and lung cancer.
Finding an appropriate solution to the problem is a double-edged sword. It is in an employer’s best interests to control dust exposure to cut down on health absences and the costs associated with these types of absences, but not at the expense of workflow. Material Safety Data Sheets provided by joint compound manufacturers have attempted to deal with the problem. Either they recommend wet sanding, which is generally avoided because of concerns about drying time and texture finish; or wearing respiratory protection, which many workers fail to wear properly.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied several sanding systems that use portable vacuums to capture and remove the dust before the worker is exposed to it. Their engineers compared the dust exposures from three pole sanding and two hand-sanding vacuum control systems with the exposures from traditional, non-ventilated sanding methods. The five commercially available vacuum sanding controls successfully reduced dust exposures by 80% to 97%. Four of the five sanding controls cut exposures by almost 95%.
In addition to lowering exposures, the engineers also found that vacuum-sanding systems can help both the worker and the employer in other ways. The reduction in airborne dust makes for a much cleaner work area both during and after sanding. For workers, the cleaner work environment is more comfortable; less irritating to eyes, nose, and throat; and less likely to require respiratory protection. For the employer it means that workers will be more productive, be absent less, and require fewer breaks for fresh air. There is a cost savings that results from a cleaner environment because it reduces cleanup time and the time spent in repairing or repainting stained floors and carpets. These findings proved that using safety measures to protect worker health didn’t have to come at the expense of quality or cost-effectiveness.