It never fails to disappoint me how otherwise bright and talented craftsmen and women who are experts at their trade will sometimes neglect their own health and safety.

As an apprentice plasterer back in the mid 1970s, I was the cub assigned on a fireproofing crew with an old-time plasterer known simply as “Cowboy.” Cowboy was definitely old school and as tough as they come. He had a talent for applying mono-coat in such a uniform manner that you would have thought the beams had all been cast out of a mold. But they weren’t, and day after long day, Cowboy stood atop the rolling scaffolding, spraying the fire resistant material, outfitted with his mandatory hard hat, cowboy boots and a red bandana he kept tied around his neck and would raise over his nose and mouth whenever an OSHA inspector would come around. Most of the time the bandana was slung loosely around his neck and a Chesterfield King cigarette would hang from his mouth. If he had a dust mask, it was propped up on his hard hat or tossed to the floor as soon as the OSHA guy left. When you looked at Cowboy close up you would think he was made from granite and well over 60 years old. His skin was ashen even after he cleaned up and deeply cracked. In truth, he was only 43.

A decade or so later, I became a union representative and one of my first duties was to attend Cowboy’s funeral. He was only 55 when he died and had wasted away to a shadow of his former self, the result of lung cancer. In his final years this tough old bird had to be helped to the bathroom by his wife and could breathe only with the help of a little green bottle of oxygen that became his constant companion. Six years later we buried his wife, the official cause of death being asbestosis. As many dutiful wives did, she washed Cowboy’s work clothes, but to avoid ruining a washing machine, she would first take the clothes out to the backyard and shake off the dried plaster that would then float up into the air as a fine light tan cloud.


Was asbestos the deadly culprit that claimed the life of this couple or was it the cigarettes? I suspect both played a role, for when your body has to deal with tobacco smoke as well as the dust and other chemicals found at construction sites, your risk of developing cancer or other serious illnesses increases dramatically.

Today, asbestos has been banned from most building materials and cigarettes now sport mandatory warning labels. Such was not the case back in the ’50s and ’60s when Cowboy began working in the trade. It was hot and cumbersome to wear a dust mask and it was macho to smoke cigarettes, and once established, habits are hard to break, even bad ones. Besides, you couldn’t smoke if you wore a dust mask.

Over the last 30 years I have lost many close friends whom I worked with on the scaffold, most to respiratory illnesses such as lung cancer, asbestosis poisoning and emphysema. And to this day, much to my disappointment and protest, I continue to find plasterers and drywall finishers working in dusty environments without using proper respiratory protection and touting the same old excuses like,“those things are hot and sweaty,” but almost always I spy a cigarette in their hand or hanging from their lips. The addiction to nicotine and/or simply bad work habits in these environments is causing far too many of our good mechanics to cast aside common sense and not protect themselves from a similar fate as my friend Cowboy.

I make no claims that modern-day materials have the same deadly effects as asbestos; however, in its day, asbestos was touted as the “miracle building material,” and few back then knew of its deadly properties. What I do claim is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently conducted a Health Hazard Evaluation that showed sanding drywall without proper protection exposes workers to 10 times the permissible amount of dust, including the ultra-fine particles that go deep into your lungs. Materials used in the walls and ceiling industry can contain calcite, gypsum, mica and silica – all items best used in the construction of buildings, not the destruction of your lungs.


OSHA Regulations for Respiratory Protection (Standards 29 CFR) 1910.134 states:

“In the control of those occupational diseases caused by breathing air contaminated with harmful dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes, sprays or vapors, the primary objective shall be to prevent atmospheric contamination. This shall be accomplished as far as feasible by accepted engineering control measures (for example, enclosure or confinement of the operation, general and local ventilation, and substitution of less toxic materials). When effective engineering controls are not feasible, or while they are being instituted, appropriate respirators shall be used pursuant to this section.

“Respirators shall be provided by the employer when such equipment is necessary to protect the health of the employee. The employer shall provide the respirators that are applicable and suitable for the purpose intended. The employer shall be responsible for the establishment and maintenance of a respiratory protection program that shall include the requirements outlined in … this section.

“In any workplace where respirators are necessary to protect the health of the employee or whenever respirators are required by the employer, the employer shall establish and implement a written respiratory protection program with worksite-specific procedures. The program shall be updated as necessary to reflect those changes in workplace conditions that affect respirator use. The employer shall include in the program the following provisions of this section, as applicable:

• Procedures for selecting respirators for use in the workplace;
• Medical evaluations of employees required to use respirators;
• Fit testing procedures for tight-fitting respirators;
• Procedures for proper use of respirators in routine and reasonably foreseeable emergency situations;
• Procedures and schedules for cleaning, disinfecting, storing, inspecting, repairing, discarding, and otherwise maintaining respirators;
• Procedures to ensure adequate air quality, quantity, and flow of breathing air for atmosphere-supplying respirators;
• Training of employees in the respiratory hazards to which they are potentially exposed during routine and emergency situations;
• Training of employees in the proper use of respirators, including putting on and removing them, any limitations on their use and their maintenance; and
• Procedures for regularly evaluating the effectiveness of the program.”


There are various types of respirators, each designed to protect against different types of contaminants. Particulate respirators, such as the 3M 8240 / R95 (R95 designating at least 95 percent filtration efficiency against solid and liquid aerosols) are the most commonly used respirator for “dusty” applications, are referred to as “dust masks” and are thrown away after one use. Other types of respirators may be appropriate depending on the situation; these would include “dual cartridge” respirators, which have a variety of filtration medium that can be attached to a fitted mask. There also are “air-supplied respirators,” which are used in highly hazardous environments where full breathing protection is necessary. The correct choice of respirators is dictated by the environment in which you work and needs to be identified by the respiratory protection program put into place for the job site you are on.

The harsh lessons of those who worked around asbestos and those who smoke should be heeded by all. As someone much wiser than I once said, “If we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeats its mistakes.” No one lives forever, but don’t you want to live as long and as healthy as you can? So be a real tough guy and throw away the cigarettes and put on the damn mask!