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If you sand drywall or joint tape you may be exposed to dust containing gypsum and crystalline silica. Asbestos may also be present in older drywall mud. Both of these can cause health problems. To protect yourself, always wear a respirator while working with drywall. Keep dust to a minimum while cleaning up the jobsite.

How workers are exposed

Workers may breathe in the fine dust that comes from sanding drywall and joint tape. Drywallers typically have the most exposure, but other workers nearby may also be affected.

The risks

Drywall is a relatively safe material to use. The largest risk is dust and silica exposure from sanding. Over time this dust can cause upper respiratory problems similar to asthma. If silica is present, workers may face an increased risk for silicosis and lung cancer. Old drywall mud and some gypsum boards can contain asbestos.

Also, some drywall imported from China between 2001 and 2007 contains sulfur compounds. These compounds emit toxic gases. The gases can cause upper respiratory problems. They can also corrode electrical, plumbing, and HVAC components. Though we believe none of this drywall was used in B.C., workers might encounter it and should be aware of it.

Another risk relates to the size and weight of drywall panels that must be moved or lifted into place. Installers need to consider the risk of strains and sprains when handling drywall and working on drywall ceilings.

How to reduce the risks

Your best protection from drywall dust is controlling the dust created from sanding. You can reduce the amount of airborne dust when sanding and cleaning up by using a vacuum system. Avoid dry sweeping and the use of compressed air.

If you suspect there may be asbestos in old installed gypsum boards, do not touch it or move it. Tell your employer, who will investigate. It may be necessary to contact a qualified asbestos abatement professional to remove it.

The most effective way to reduce the risk of exposure to drywall dust is to eliminate the source of exposure. If that's not possible, there are other risk controls to use. When choosing risk controls, start by asking yourself the questions in the following steps. The steps are listed in order of effectiveness.

  1. 1

    Elimination or substitution

    Eliminating the hazard by substituting a safer process or material, where possible, is the most effective control. A question to consider:

    • Can silica-free drywall mud be used?
  2. 2

    Engineering controls

    Making physical modifications to facilities, equipment, and processes can reduce exposure. Some questions to consider:

    • Can vacuum sanding systems be used to capture dust when sanding and cleaning up?
    • Can ventilation be improved?
    • Can the areas being sanded be enclosed?
    • Can an access hatch be used to deliver drywall to tall buildings?
  3. 3

    Administrative controls

    These involve changing work practices and work policies. Providing awareness tools and training also count as administrative controls. All can limit the risk of drywall dust exposure and injuries related to handling drywall panels. Some questions to consider:

    • Can work practices be used that reduce the need to sand?
    • Can warning signs be posted in the work area?
    • Can sanding be scheduled for when the least number of workers are present?
    • Can written safe work procedures be posted?
    • Have workers been trained in ergonomic practices that minimize their risks when lifting and handling drywall panels?
  4. 4

    Personal protective equipment

    This is the least effective control. When used, there must always be at least one other control in place as well. Some questions to consider:

    • Do workers have the proper respirators and eye wear?
    • Has personal protective equipment been tested to make sure it is working properly?