Wood dust can cause serious health problems. It can cause asthma, which carpenters and joiners are four times more likely to get compared with other UK workers. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 require that you protect workers from the hazards of wood dust. Our latest article explores what wood dust exposure is, and how you can limit and control the health risks associated with it to ensure a safer working environment.

What is wood dust and what causes it?

Wood processing causes small particles of wood dust to become suspended in the air. Workers can inhale these particles. A person’s upper respiratory system can filter out the larger particles, but smaller particles can go deep into the lungs causing damage and scarring to the lung tissue. Each time this happens a small amount of irreversible damage occurs. This damage reduces the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen and over time makes it increasingly difficult to breathe. The presence of glues, resins, formaldehyde and other wood treatment chemicals in some wood products increase the health risks from wood dust.

The following activities are likely to cause high dust exposures:

  • sawing and cutting
  • routing and turning
  • sanding
  • dry sweeping of dust
  • bagging dust from dust extraction systems.

Health risks

The most obvious health risk of wood dust exposure is inhaling dust into the lungs which can cause breathing problems and lead to lung diseases such as occupational asthma and lung cancer. Less serious issues shouldn’t be ignored either though, which can include getting dust in the eyes, causing irritation and damage, and also skin contact with wood dust, which can cause ulceration of the skin, irritation and dermatitis.

The HSE’s MDHS14-4 – General Methods for Sampling and Gravimetric Analysis of Respirable, Thoracic and Inhalable Aerosols guidance defines the different types of dust and how they can penetrate the human body.

Inhalable fraction – this approximates the fraction of airborne material that enters the nose and mouth during breathing and is therefore available for deposition anywhere in the respiratory tract.

Thoracic fraction – this is the fraction of inhaled airborne material penetrating beyond the larynx.

Respirable fraction – this is the inhaled airborne material that penetrates to the lower gas exchange region of the lung.

How to control it

Companies have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers and other workers whose activities they influence or direct. The risk must be eliminated so far as is reasonably practicable and where this is not possible they must minimise them.

  • Advise workers to wear respiratory protection equipment (RPE) when emptying vacuum cleaner bags or collection bags – there is a potential for high wood dust exposure.
  • Local exhaust ventilation (LEV) is one of the most effective ways to control dust at the source. Use LEV systems to capture dust from cutting, shaping and sanding wood either by hand or machine.
  • Ensure workers wear RPE and other personal protection equipment (PPE) suitable for the task. Advise workers to remove work clothing such as overalls carefully at the end of the task or shift to avoid generating dust clouds.
  • Provide washing facilities at work so dust is not taken home.

For further advice on wood dust exposure, please contact us here.