Return to Skip Menu

Main Content

Dust control research leads to grant to facilitate adoption by construction industry


BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 11, 2009 – In the construction industry, respiratory disease, often leading to disability or an increased risk of cancer, is a major public health concern. Studies led by Deborah Young-Corbett, a faculty member in Virginia Tech's School of Construction, have shown that specific types of sanding tools are highly effective in reducing the dust that causes these health hazards, yet the industry's usage of the available technology remains very low.

To find out why, Young-Corbett conducted follow-up studies with construction firm owners and workers, and identified a number of barriers to the adoption of technology that lead to healthier environments. She said they related to productivity, work quality, and perceptions of benefits and risks.

One of her colleagues, Theodore Koebel of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech has also conducted work in this area and has identified a number of strategies to encourage the construction industry to adopt the new technologies.

The two have now teamed on a new proposal to build upon this original work, and to improve the adoption of engineering controls in the construction industry to improve the health of the workers. Joining them is Enid Headen Montague, a member of the industrial engineering department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Under a Research-to-Practice (R2P) project, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has agreed to fund the next phase of this work.

Young-Corbett, the principal investigator on the project, started working in this area when she was pursuing her doctorate in industrial engineering/industrial hygiene which she obtained in 2007. Among her honors as a Ph.D. candidate, she was a NIOSH fellowship recipient for 2006-07. She led a pilot project in the Virginia Tech Center for Innovation in Construction, Safety, and Health on the evaluation of dust control technologies for drywall finishing operations. She also received a NIOSH training grant from Johns Hopkins University to enhance her work on this topic, which served as the background material for her dissertation.

In the two years since her arrival on the engineering faculty at Virginia Tech, she has brought in some $1.2 million in sponsored research, with a personal share of more than $700,000. This specific grant for $583,125 is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Project Grant Program or an RO1. RO1s, the original NIH grant mechanism, provide support for health-related research and development. And although a dramatic increase in biomedical research has taken place at Virginia Tech, it is rare for an assistant professor to receive an NIH RO1.

Young-Corbett explained that for decades “drywall finishing operations have been associated with worker over-exposure to dust. This dust contains known particulate respiratory health hazards such as silica, talc, mica, and calcite. Despite the existence of effective engineering controls, such as ventilated sanders and low-dust drywall compound, worker exposures persist.”

Specifically, drywall finishers and laborers have a statistically elevated risk of death from cancer of the pharynx, lung, and respiratory tuberculosis, according to previous studies, Young-Corbett, the director of the Occupational and Construction Hazard Reduction Engineering Laboratory at Virginia Tech, added.

Yet, a previous NIOSH Hazard Control Study found that vacuum sanding systems reduced drywall dust levels by 80 to 97 per cent. This evaluation of five commercially available ventilated drywall-sanding systems found that four of the five systems reduced dust concentrations by greater than 90 percent.

A certified industrial hygienist, safety professional, and a hazardous materials manager, Young-Corbett has developed the Dust-control Usage: Strategic Technology Intervention (DUSTI) plan. Through education and marketing strategies, she, Koebel, and Montague will address key findings of previous studies that identified the barriers to the adoption and factors influencing diffusion of innovation in the construction industry. While their intervention strategy will be designed for generalization to all construction trade sectors, the initial evaluation will be performed in the drywall finishing trade.

“We selected the drywall finishing trade because respiratory disease among plasterers and wall finishers in particular, is a major public health concern,” Young-Corbett said. “Workers in these trades suffer from disproportionately high rates of respiratory disease and disability.”

Through their new grant, they will target three separate components of the industry: the workers, owners of small firms, and proprietors of large firms. “In our past work, we found that barriers to adopting the more user-friendly technology differed,” Young-Corbett said.

The worker intervention will employ “cues to action” and training aimed at health information, risks, trust, and control technology. The small-firm intervention will employ the creation of “technology champions” within the firms and training aimed at productivity and customer satisfaction impacts, health information, and regulatory drivers. The large-firm intervention will involve information dissemination to purchasing agents aimed at communicating productivity and quality impacts, health information, and regulatory drivers, Young-Corbett, also a member of the Virginia Tech Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, explained.

The DUSTI project is one of seven recently funded under the umbrella of a NIOSH/Center for Disease Control and Prevention award. The proposal was prepared by an interdisciplinary team of researchers, many of who are members of Virginia Tech’s Center for Innovation in Construction Safety and Health. A total of more than $7 million involving 19 faculty across six universities and two countries, encompassing as array of critical areas affecting safety and health in construction, was awarded.