Having wood in your home or workplace does not come with a safety warning. You don't need to send your chest of drawers to a hazardous waste site.
If you work with wood, however, then you do need to be aware of the health hazards created by wood dust.
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 in close proximity to the work.
If asked to write down all the harmful materials on site, very few would list wood at all. As wood is a natural material, so often not considered harmful. 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.
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.
What are the health hazards of wood dust? The main health problems from inhalation of wood dust are:
It can cause asthma, which carpenters and joiners are four times more likely to get compared with other UK workers.
All types 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 of the nose (sinuses and nasal cavity).
Wood dust is a hazardous substance and is covered by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations. Because of the health risks involved, a workplace exposure limit (WEL) of 5mg/m3 has been applied to it. Exposure limits are in place to control the effects of harmful substances, depending on the nature of the substance and the effects of exposure. Legally this exposure limit must not be exceeded.
In addition, wood dust exposure must be reduced as low as reasonably practicable because of the health risks. That means, even if you are below the workplace exposure limit, you should still take action to reduce the risk.
This first control you might think of for dust is a dust mask. A dust mask will filter out the dust from the air you breathe in. Wearing a dust mask is only one step in reducing the risk. Remember – 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.
There are a number of ways that dust control can reduce exposure, above and beyond issuing a dust mask.
Providing dust extraction is easier in a workshop environment than on site. Local exhaust ventilation can be fitted to woodworking machines, eliminating the hazard at source by removing dust from the environment before it can reach those at work. Remember to keep your ventilation system maintained and tested regularly to ensure it is performing correctly.
Where dust extraction cannot be provided to remove dust at the source, damping down can be used. Wet dust is heavier than air, so damping down dust helps prevent dust becoming airborne.
Damping down should be used where practical particularly if sweeping up or for large concentrations of dust.
Rather than sweeping up wood dust, vacuum clean up can be a better alternative. Sweeping can cause it to become airborne again causing high levels of dust exposure and increase the risks of breathing in the particles.
An industrial vacuum system suitable for the task (free standing with a HEPA filter or pipe attached to your extraction system) should be used.
For most woods, regular health surveillance questionnaires should be sufficient, prior to starting work and thereafter every 12 months. You can then take action if a member of your staff becomes affected.
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.