Drywall: a Familiar Product with Hidden Hazards
Drywall is a simple product that revolutionized interior construction by eliminating the extra time and craftsmanship required for traditional lath-and-plaster walls and ceilings. Today, nearly all commercially available drywall is made of gypsum plaster with a paper coating, a product that was developed and refined in the early 20th century. In addition to simplifying installation, drywall also provides greater fire resistance and can reduce transmission of noises from room to room. Drywall sheets are quickly and easily attached to wood or metal studs, or to ceiling joists.
Because drywall is so familiar and simple to work with, it’s easy to forget that installing it can present a risk of injury. Studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have concluded that injuries caused by overexertion and falls are the two primary hazards facing workers who handle drywall, accounting for more than two-thirds of injuries. Overexertion and muscle strains result most often from carrying, lifting, or holding drywall, with back injuries a common result.
Heavier than it seems
A typical sheet of drywall weighs between 55 and 120 pounds, depending upon size and composition. Most workers aren’t intimidated by that weight, but it’s easy to lose sight of the damage caused by repetitive lifting and carrying. Lifting while bending or twisting creates more stress on the back, increasing the potential for injuries, while holding elevated drywall in place can strain arm, neck, and shoulder muscles.
The best way to head off injuries is through planning. First, have the drywall delivered as close to the jobsite as possible to minimize the need for lifting. If sheets have to be moved at the jobsite, use carts, hand trucks, or dollies instead of carrying them by hand. Most important, work in pairs when lifting sheets and putting them into place. Set the sheets so they’ll be close to waist height and try not to swing them over obstacles.
Workers should wear protective footwear such as safety shoes, because dropping a sheet on one’s toes is painful and can result in a broken bone or other injury. In addition, gloves with PVC dots will improve a worker’s grip, as will drywall handles.
If the drywall is going to be placed above the body, as in a ceiling installation, it’s a good idea to use a drywall jack or lift. Trying to hold and affix drywall simultaneously is a recipe for a muscle strain or a dropped sheet. Falls can result when trying to hang drywall from a ladder or when working above an uneven surface.
Drywall carts can be a convenience that reduces the potential for back injuries and strains, but those carts do have a few hazards of their own. If loaded improperly, they may tip over or move uncontrollably. Every drywall cart should be guided by two workers, one at the front and one in the back, and workers should never attempt to ride on the cart.
When rolling the cart down an incline, be sure that any workers who may enter the cart’s path are warned that it is coming. Use wheel locks (or a piece of wood) to immobilize the cart’s wheels during loading and unloading.
Dealing with dust
Because drywall is made from gypsum plaster, it can generate dust when being cut. Sanding drywall “mud” also creates a substantial amount of dust. That’s why supervisors should review the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the type of drywall being used, and then ensure that workers are using the correct personal protective equipment. For example, if a project involves sanding asbestos-cement drywall, steps must be taken to avoid irritating the lungs, eyes, and skin. That may include safety goggles, respirators, and long-sleeved clothing.
Proper ventilation and dust-control measures will limit exposure to drywall dust, and prevent dust from traveling to other areas of the jobsite — something that’s particularly important when performing renovations or expansions that are adjacent to occupied spaces.
When hanging drywall or cutting openings, workers should always pay attention to what may be behind or adjacent to the wall. For example, if there are live electrical wires where the drywall is being installed, a nail or screw could come in contact with the wires, creating an electrocution hazard. The same is true when removing existing drywall as part of a demolition or renovation. Always assume that there may be wiring or plumbing behind the drywall, and make cuts accordingly.
Simple ways workers can reduce the chances of strains and other muscle injuries include performing basic stretches at the beginning of a task and occasionally while performing the task. Taking frequent short breaks will allow the body to recover from the stress and strain of working, especially when performing repetitive tasks. If multiple workers are involved, rotating positions and tasks will also limit the potential for strain (and may increase alertness).
Even though drywall involves familiar tasks that may vary little from jobsite to jobsite, the best protection for workers is maintaining awareness of the site and studying the task and mitigating potential hazards before work begins.