Understanding Wood Dust: Hazards, Prevention, and Employer Responsibilities

April 23, 2024
wood dust

Woodworking operations generate wood dust – that comes as no surprise. What might shock many, however, are the significant health risks that wood dust poses to workers if not properly managed. 

As a trusted UK Health and Safety Consultancy, Safety Services Direct provides businesses and contractors with PPE, online health and safety training, and advice on best practices. In this guide, we explore the hazards of wood dust, preventive measures, and employer responsibilities in ensuring workplace safety.

What is Wood Dust?

Wood dust is created or generated by machinery or tooling that ejects fine particulate dust into the atmosphere when working with different wood materials. Machine operators or those working close to woodworking operations are at risk of suffering from significant health problems as a result if the activities are not properly controlled.

Types of Wood Dust

Three main types of wood are commonly used in woodworking operations, each generating harmful dust particles:

  • Hardwood (e.g., oak, teak, mahogany)
  • Softwood (e.g., pine, fir, spruce)
  • MDF (medium-density fiberboard) is known for producing finer dust due to its engineered composition and resin binding.

Hazards of Wood Dust

Wood dust inhalation or exposure can lead to various health conditions, including:

  • Respiratory illnesses like occupational asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Irritation to the respiratory system, eyes, and nose
  • Dermatitis and other skin complaints

Carpenters and joiners are four times more likely to suffer from these effects than any other UK workers. Hardwood dust, specifically, can cause cancer, particularly of the nose. It is most notable that settled dust contains fine particles most likely to damage the lungs. 

Wood dust is also flammable and can cause a fire or explosion. Every year, there are occurrences of premises severely damaged or destroyed by wood dust fires that usually start in dust extraction equipment. A wood dust extraction system must use ATEX-rated components, and the explosion vents are “vented to a safe place”, typically the outside. Another important element to ensure is built into the extraction system is an explosion non-return damper, which prevents an explosion from travelling back into the workplace via the ducting. These elements are often missed out in systems in an effort to save on initial costs and can often explain why quotations can vary greatly.

Causes of Wood Dust

Wood dust is generated by mechanical means due to the nature and speed of the machining or cutting process. The following activities can create significant amounts of dust in the workplace:

  • Wood machining operations, particularly sawing, routing or turning
  • Sanding, by machine or by hand
  • Use of compressed airlines to blow dust off furniture that is being worked on
  • Hand assembly of machined or sanded components
  • Operations involving cutting or processing composite boards, for example, medium-density fiberboard (MDF)
  • The bagging and handling of wood dust from dust extraction systems or dust collection machines
  • Sweeping of wood dust from floors or high-level cleaning of dust

Employers Responsibilities

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations, employers have a duty to protect workers from hazardous substances like wood dust. Employers are therefore required to appropriately assess the risks to their workforce and implement control measures proportionate to the associated risks with the work activities being performed. The control measures required can be identified by being aware of the types of substances that those at risk are exposed to. This is known as the Workplace Exposure Limits or WELs.

For example:

Softwood has a WEL of 5mg/m3.

Harwood has a well of 3mg/m3.

Employers have a duty under COSHH not to exceed the Workplace Exposure Limits (WEL) limits. Other employer responsibilities include: 

  • Ensuring exposure levels do not exceed Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs)
  • Providing suitable control measures such as Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) systems, HEPA filter vacuums, and Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE)
  • Conducting air monitoring and occupational health assessments to identify and mitigate exposure risks

Controlling Exposure Levels

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent employees from inhaling dust on a regular basis. Here are some of the best methods that employers can use to control wood dust exposure levels:

  • Install Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV), which is widely viewed as the most effective control method for airborne particulate dust 
  • Properly manage dust collection equipment to prevent spillages and blockages
  • Providing appropriate PPE, such as FFP3 masks and gloves, and conducting face fit testing for mask effectiveness
  • Do not fill dust bags over two-thirds full – overfilling dust bags can lead to spillages and the generation of excess dust – full dust bags can negatively draw and block ductwork
  • Provide M- Class or HEPA filter Vacuums for the cleaning of excess wood dust
  • Ensure dry sweeping is prohibited within woodworking areas
  • Where sanding activities are performed Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) shall be provided and used in addition to Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV)
  • Perform air monitoring to identify the exposure levels in the workplace
  • Provide occupational health assessments for Spirometry (lung function)

Ready to Improve Workplace Dust Exposure?

Wood dust poses significant health risks to woodworking workers, making it critical for employers to employ proactive measures to mitigate exposure risks. By adhering to regulatory requirements, implementing effective control measures, and prioritising worker safety, employers can create safer working environments and protect the health and well-being of their workforce.

To discuss any of your workplace health and safety needs, call us today at 0121 3487828.


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