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Engineering Controls Database

Control of Drywall Sanding Dust Exposures

Construction workers who sand drywall joint compound are often exposed to high concentrations of dust and, in some cases, respirable silica. Drywall joint compounds are made from many ingredients (i.e., talc, calcite, mica, gypsum, silica).

A recent NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) found that drywall sanders were exposed to as much as 10 times the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 15 mg/m3 for total dust set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The OSHA PEL for respirable dust (5 mg/m3), the very small particles that can go deep into the lungs, was also exceeded
Some of the compounds found in drywall dust have been associated with varying degrees of eye, nose, throat, and respiratory tract irritation. Over time, breathing the dust from drywall joint compounds may cause persistent throat and airway irritation, coughing, phlegm production, and breathing difficulties similar to asthma. Smokers or workers with sinus or respiratory conditions may risk even worse health problems. When silica is present, workers may also face an increased risk of silicosis and lung cancer.
EPHB reviewed several manufacturers’ material safety data sheets (MSDSs) for drywall compounds. These showed silica quartz contents ranging from 0.1%-2.5% Wt/Wt and the presence of other drywall components including gypsum, talc, mica and respirable/total particulate. An experiment was conducted that compared five off-the-shelf vacuum sanding systems with conventional dry sanding techniques to evaluate the capabilities of the controls to reduce mean exposures to airborne exposures.

Vacuum Sanding Systems

Several light-weight sanding systems are now sold to control drywall workers sanding exposures. These systems use portable vacuums to capture and remove the dust before the worker is exposed to it. In 1994, NIOSH studied several of these sanding systems at the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades (IBPAT) Apprenticeship Training Facility in Seattle, Washington. NIOSH engineers compared the dust exposures from three pole-sanding and two hand-sanding vacuum control systems with the exposures from traditional, nonventilated 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 nearly 95%.

Since the 1994 NIOSH study, more manufacturers are now making drywall sanding controls to cut dust exposures. Although NIOSH has not tested these controls, researchers expect them to perform well. In addition to cutting dust exposures, each of these new controls has its own special features that will attract both drywall professionals and the do-it-yourselfer.
In addition to lower exposures, vacuum sanding systems can help the sander, subcontractor, general contractor, and building owner in other ways. The dramatic reduction in airborne dust exposures results in a much cleaner work area during and after sanding. For workers, the clean working environment is more comfortable; less irritating to eyes, nose, and throat; and less likely to require respiratory protection. For the subcontractor, a comfortable worker is likely to be more productive, be absent less often, and require fewer breaks for fresh air. The savings and reduced regulatory liability given by lower respiratory protection requirements will be passed from the subcontractor to the building owner. Other cost savings will result from a cleaner environment that reduces dirt, cleanup time, and repair or repainting of stained floors and carpets.


NIOSH study results suggest that the construction workers dust exposures might be cut simply by changing from hand-sanding to pole-sanding. This change is even more important when working overhead. The pole increases the space between the worker and the sanding surface, which in turn reduces the amount of dust close to the workers nose and mouth.
Hand-sanding vaccuum control system

Hand-sanding vaccuum control system

Pole-sanding vaccuum control system

Pole-sanding vaccuum control system
208-11-A; 208-12-A; 208-13-A; 208-14-A; 208-15-A; 208-16-A; 208-17-A; 208-18-A; 208-19-A; 208-20-A; 208-21-A; 208-22-A; 208-23-A;
construction worker
drywall finishing
drywall installation
drywall sanding
home builder