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.
As breathing in wood dust can cause asthma, it is important for businesses to identify any health effects early. This can be done by having a suitable health surveillance programme in place.
Businesses should seek advice from an occupational health professional (doctor or nurse) who has the relevant skills, competence and experience for health risks in woodworking. Your health surveillance programme should cover all of your workers who might breathe in wood dust.
- You should assess workers' respiratory health ideally before exposure, but if not, then as soon as possible after exposure starts (e.g. within six weeks) to provide a baseline.
- You must have ongoing assessments at appropriate frequencies, usually annually, although more frequent assessments are appropriate for new workers. Your occupational health professional can advise you on how frequently you should do this.
- Health surveillance should involve an appropriate questionnaire and the performance of spirometry.
- Occupational health professionals should interpret the heath surveillance results for both individuals and groups of similarly exposed workers, taking into account any previously available results. This allows you to identify any need to revise your risk assessment, review exposure controls, and where necessary move workers to alternative roles.
- In circumstances where there is:
- exposure to a potential respiratory sensitiser;
- only occasional exposure to a known respiratory sensitiser; or
- adequate control of exposure with no evidence of health problems at health surveillance (questionnaire and spirometry) over a representative time period
an annual respiratory questionnaire and keeping a health record may be adequate. Your responsible person could administer the questionnaire, for example: Sample questionnaire (follow-up). You should always consult with your occupational health professional when making these decisions.
- You should ensure that your risk management system allows workers to report any symptoms that occur between planned health surveillance assessments. This could be either to your responsible person or occupational health professional.
- You must keep a health record for each worker under health surveillance and also encourage them to keep a copy of their results in case they change jobs.
- Your risk management system should ensure that concerns raised by employees are investigated and that any relevant sick leave data are taken into account. This can help highlight cases of OA and any issues with working practices.”
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