What you need to know
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.
Hardwood dust can cause cancer, particularly of the nose.
Settled dust contains the fine particles that are most likely to damage the lungs.
What you need to do
Both hardwood and softwood dusts have a Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) which must not be exceeded.
The WEL for hardwood dust is 3mg/m3 (based on an 8-hour time-weighted average).
The WEL for softwood dust is 5mg/m3 (based on an 8-hour time-weighted average).
For mixtures of hardwood and softwood dusts the WEL for hardwood dust of 3mg/m3 applies to all wood dusts present in that mixture.
Adequate control of wood dust is achieved when:
- The eight principles of good control practice are applied as set out in Schedule 2A of COSHH;
- Exposure is below the relevant WEL; and
- Exposure is reduced to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.
Provide dust extraction (also known as local exhaust ventilation or LEV) at woodworking machines to capture and remove dust before it can spread.
Design the extraction system to take into account:
- the number and type of machines to be connected to it, the ones that are used together and the layout of the workshop or factory. This information should be supplied by the user.
- the machine manufacturer’s information or an experienced body’s information on air flow and extraction cross-sectional areas or volume flow rates (VFR) required for each extraction connection for each machine.
Details of how to fit effective extraction to a circular saw bench can be seen in
Control of wood dust at circular saws. This video also demonstrates how to use a dust lamp effectively to show whether wood dust exposure is being controlled. These techniques can be applied to other woodworking machines.
Educate workers about the risks from wood dust and the control measures required. They should know how to use the extraction properly. Fitting air flow indicators will help, as these will show them if it is working correctly, for example if dampers are open or shut and also if maintenance is required.
Keep the extraction system properly maintained and working correctly (it is a legal requirement to have it examined by a competent person at least every 14 months). Follow the extraction manufacturer’s guidance for maintenance requirements.
Never sweep up or use compressed air lines as this will disturb the dust and allow it to become inhaled. Always clean up using a suitable industrial vacuum cleaner that at least meets the Class M classification.
For very dusty jobs such as sanding, additional protection may be needed and a suitable face mask should be worn as well as using the extraction.
Where you need to use RPE you should:
- select the right mask and cartridge
- ensure it fits properly by having it ‘face fitted’, and by being clean shaven
- look after it / change it regularly in accordance with the manufacturers instructions.
Because wood dust causes asthma any health effects must be picked up early. This can be done using health surveillance.
For most woods, low level health surveillance will do. When someone first starts in a job where they are exposed to wood dust they should fill in a questionnaire, for example: Sample questionnaire (when worker starts work).
After six weeks they should then complete a follow up questionnaire and this should then be repeated every year, for example: Sample questionnaire (follow-up).
These questionnaires tell you what to do if you think someone has been affected.
A higher level of health surveillance, including lung function testing, is needed for exposures to woods such as western red cedar which are a known asthmagen.
Find out more
- HSE COSHH website
- Warning on deadly wood dust cancer
- Working with substances hazardous to health: A brief guide to COSHH
- HSE Asthma website
- HSE Local exhaust ventilation (LEV) website
- Health surveillance - Offshore COSHH essentials