I was out hunting and gathering the other day, when 30 years of drywall hanging brought my body to a halt. Apparently, manhandling two tons of drywall a day and shooting screws isn’t good for the shoulders! The doctor says I’ve torn the rotator cuffs on both arms.
If this is the end for me, all I can say is: I had my moments! There were some amazing houses hung, and many an exciting race run. My most vivid memories as an apprentice are of my dad and me running with a 12-foot sheet of drywall through an un-hung wall of 16-inch o.c. studs, bending the sheet around a tough corner, and then flowing up the benches in one motion to hang it on the ceiling. My father was a very fast hanger and I struggled to keep up. A few years later he had to have surgery. The doctors fused the 3 lower vertebrae of his spinal column.
300 Sheets In A DayI recall years later in Florida: Tom, Joe and I hung 300 sheets in a 10-hour day! For those of you who doubt this figure: OK OK! We left the screwing and routing until the next day. On another job, Joe and I used a stopwatch to determine the fastest way to hang the different sections of the units we were doing. We constantly improved our production and were the fastest crew on that job. Joe is now 47 years old and might have to have the same operation as my father. Additionally, his arms suffer from osteoarthritis from his years of being the fastest hanger on the block.
And then in San Francisco in the ’80s, my brother Andrew and I were beating the hanging quotas on a commercial building by 25 percent. My brother is 46 years old now; his battle wounds include arthroscopic surgery on the knee, a shattered meniscus, and rotator cuff issues.
Somewhere or another, in some old union tome, the figure of 2,000 square feet of rock is officially mentioned as what a journeyman should be expected to hang in a day. (If I remember my legends correctly ... it seems to me that they had to fight the contractors for that concession!) This works out to roughly two tons worth of drywall. Not to mention the fact that by the time you get your piece of drywall in its spot, you’ve probably moved it more than once. Without too much of a stretch of the imagination we could safely say that a journeyman is actually moving three tons of rock per day, two tons of which he must hold tightly and exactly while fastening it to its intended spot. This is tiring just thinking about it!
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the primary cause of “... injuries to drywall installers and carpenters are overexertion (37 percent)...” And a “survey of drywall installers and carpenters found that workers believed their biggest risk of physical stress was from lifting, carrying, or holding drywall.”
The Labor Health and Safety Fund of North America says, “In a recent survey, 40 percent of construction workers said ‘working while hurt’ is a major problem. Working while hurt reduces productivity. Continuing to work while hurt will result in disabling injuries that can end a career. Many laborers end up retiring by age 55 because they just can’t do the work any more.”
THE MACHO FACTORNow, add to the above the fact that rockers are driven from outside and inside pressures to hang more. From the outside the pressures are obvious: Everyone higher on the food chain wants more production. From within, the pressure comes from our own desires to excel; it’s tied intimately to our self-esteem. Every young buck strives to be good, and in the world of drywall, hanging faster is better. As silly as it may be, the macho factor cannot be denied: We think there’s a certain manliness to the job and no rocker wants to feel like a wuss!
I’ve trained many an apprentice. I taught them to move smoothly with the drywall, how to lift properly and pamper their backs, how to save their necks from the pressures of drywall, literally and metaphorically. So what do I tell them now?
Well, my first son is a drywall hanger. I tell him to pay attention to what is happening to me. “This is more or less typical of what to expect if you keep hanging drywall, son. Educate yourself on the subject. Keep your eyes open. Look for something better. Don’t overwork yourself. And make sure you’re always working with good workman’s comp coverage!”
In the old days, when one of our ancestors tripped and sprained his ankle on a wild hickory nut while out chasing mastodons with his buddies, they would drag him back to the cave, prop him against the wall, and, well, that was about it! If they liked him they probably threw him a bone every now and then. It was a tough love type of thing.
I’m pleased that things are different today. The state of Montana has a workman’s comp system in place that gently cushioned my fall from grace and will now assist me in getting back on my feet. Whew! I dodged the bullet! For the moment.