8th September, 2022

Inhaling Wood Dust: What Are You Breathing Into Your Lungs?

If you work with wood, you're going to create dust. But if wood dust enters your lungs, it can cause health problems like asthma, and in some cases, cancer. If you work with wood, you need to be aware of the health hazards created by wood dust, so that you can protect yourself and work safely.

Inhaling Wood Dust: What Are You Breathing Into Your Lungs? header image

Wood is a natural material, so many people don't consider it to be harmful. It comes from trees, and trees are good. But did you know that asbestos is also a naturally occurring material? In fact, there are lots of naturally occurring materials that are hazardous. Lead, arsenic, silica, and in some circumstances, wood.

Having wood in your home or workplace does not come with a safety warning. And don't worry, you don't need to send your chest of drawers to a hazardous waste site. Wood is a safe material.

But if you work with wood, you're at risk. You're four times more likely to get asthma. And certain types of wood are known to cause cancer.

Because when you work with wood, to cut, drill or shape it, for example, you produce dust. And this dust, when inhaled into your lungs, can cause health issues.

Wood dust is a common by-product in both manufacturing environments and construction sites in professions such as carpentry and joinery. Even if you do not work with timber yourself, the wood dust produced from these activities can also affect those close to the work.

If asked to write down all the harmful materials on site, very few would list wood at all. But wood dust is a hazardous substance. It's covered by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH).

So if you work with wood, you should be aware of the health hazards created by wood dust and how to stay safe.

What are the health hazards of wood dust?

Wood in its natural form is relatively low risk. However, the hazard develops once the dust is released, through sawing, drilling or sanding. In a similar way to asbestos, it is only once the material is broken into small particles that harmful exposure can occur.

Once you have tiny bits of wood floating around, they can easily get mixed in with the air you breathe. And wood dust is a problem for your health.

But what's the problem with wood dust, and how could it make you sick?

The main health hazards from the inhalation of wood dust are:

Once developed, none of these issues are easy to fix.

It can cause asthma, which carpenters and joiners are four times more likely to get compared with other UK workers.

What types of wood dust are a problem?

All types of wood dust are damaging to your health, some more than others.

Any kind of wood dust can cause asthma and respiratory blockages. HSE research has shown that those working regularly around wood dust are four times more likely to get asthma, which is a significant increase.

Hardwood dust can also cause cancer, particularly in the nose (sinuses and nasal cavity).

What does the law say about wood dust?

Wood dust is a hazardous substance and is covered by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations.

Due to the health risks involved, a workplace exposure limit (WEL) of 5mg/m3 is in place for wood dust.

Because wood dust has a WEL, monitoring exposure is needed. Exposure limits are in place to control the effects of harmful substances, and that's a legal limit for the maximum exposure.

If you exceed a WEL, you put your health at risk and break the law. Never a good combination!

But don't just focus on the WEL.

drilling wood

In addition, wood dust exposure must be reduced as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) because of the health risks.

Like a WEL, ALARP is another legal health and safety requirement. It basically means to reduce the risks as much as is reasonable, considering the risks.

So even if you are below the workplace exposure limit, you should still take action to reduce the risk.

How can you control wood dust hazards?

You might not be able to control the amount of wood dust you create, but you can work safely by reducing your exposure. And that means stopping wood dust from entering your lungs.

The following control measures, not in order, can be used.

Dust Mask

A dust mask is the first item on our list because it's the first control you might think of for dust. But it's not the most effective control.

A dust mask will filter out the dust from the air you breathe. It only protects the person wearing it, and only then if it fits correctly.

Wearing a dust mask is only one step in reducing the risk. PPE is the last line of defence for your workforce, and it is much better to eliminate the hazard or to control the risk at the source.

We're not telling you not to wear a dust mask. Your dust mask is a good control, and a useful item to have. But it shouldn't be you're only weapon of choice against wood dust. There are several ways that dust control can reduce exposure, above and beyond issuing a dust mask.

Dust Extraction

Providing dust extraction is easier in a workshop environment than on a building site. Local exhaust ventilation can be fitted to woodworking machines, eliminating the hazard at the source by removing dust from the environment before it can reach those at work.

Unlike a dust mask that only protects one person at a time, dust extraction is a collective protective measure. It protects everyone in a work area.

Remember to keep your ventilation system maintained and tested regularly to ensure it is performing correctly.

Damping Down

If dust extraction cannot be provided to remove dust at the source, you can damp down the dust created instead. When you add water, you stop dust from becoming airborne because wet dust is heavier than air.

If you have a lot of wood dust in your workplace, on floors and surfaces, damping down the dust prevents dust clouds from filling the air while you clean it up.

You can also fit attachments to equipment to damp down dust at the source and stop it from becoming airborne in the first place.

Use damping down to reduce exposure where practical, particularly if you need to sweep up or for large concentrations of dust.

Vacuum Clean Up

Damping down wood dust before sweeping up isn't always practical. And while it helps solve the dust problem, it creates a wet sludgy mess that can be a slip hazard.

Rather than sweeping up wood dust, vacuum cleaning can be a better alternative.

An industrial vacuum system suitable for the task (free-standing with a HEPA filter or pipe attached to your extraction system) should be used.

Never dry sweep large quantities of wood dust. Sweeping can cause it to become airborne again causing high levels of dust exposure and increasing the risks of breathing in the particles.

Health Surveillance

Since wood dust exposure can cause respiratory issues, if you or your team work with wood regularly, you should keep an eye on your health.

For most wood dust exposure, regular health surveillance questionnaires should be sufficient. You can do this before starting work and check back every 12 months.

With regular check-ins, you can take quick action if any dust-related issues start appearing.

When exposure to toxic wood dust is a risk, you may require additional surveillance such as lung function testing.

If you need help assessing the risk from wood dust in your workplace, you can use our wood dust COSHH assessment template.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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