Carpenter with wood dust
SF Compliance Solutions

An essential Guide To Managing Wood Dust Inhalation

The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) are kicking off 2023 with a focus on air quality monitoring for woodworkers. This forms part of their ‘Breathe Freely’ campaign, aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of wood dust and reducing the number of workers with occupational lung disease. 

They state that the biggest respiratory health risk for woodworkers and carpenters is inhalation of wood dust particles. However, other risks come in the form of solvents, paints and adhesives used to seal and finish wood projects. Inhaling toxins from these hazardous substances needs to be carefully managed. Meaning that this needs to be a high priority before workers end up with long-term respiratory health problems. 

So what are the do’s and don’t for carpenters and woodworkers? Essentially, air quality monitoring should be undertaken as part of a company’s COSHH requirements. But do you know when this needs to be done? Furthermore, do you consider wood dust a health hazard or just ‘par for the course?’ 

Common health risks associated with wood dust

Inhalation of wood dust particles is a health hazard that needs to be taken seriously. Wood dust can come from any of the following types of wood:

  • Softwood
  • Hardwood
  • Wood based products like MDF & Chipboard

Whilst all wood dust is considered a hazard to health, hardwood dust is listed as a COSHH stage 1 carcinogenic. When inhaled, hardwood dust can lead to a rare form of nasal cancer. Importantly this means that it needs to be given the highest priority when health screening woodworkers. 

All types of wood can produce dust that is harmful to health. However, many types of wood dust cause only minor irritation such as a runny nose and decreased lung function. We say ‘minor’, but over long periods of time, exposure to wood dust can cause or worsen symptoms of asthma. This can be a long-term and debilitating health condition that requires careful management as part of your overall health and safety policies. 

Moreover, dust inhalation is just one of the concerns for woodworkers. Inhalation of substances like glue and paint can have the same reactions, and sometimes even cause dizziness and fainting. When you look at the facts, carpentry and other woodworking jobs can be seen as quite a high-risk career. 

Can wood dust be eliminated altogether?

In short, no. As part of your health and safety requirements we should be working towards management, rather than elimination. However, according to the BOHS there are some things that we can do to minimise exposure to wood dust. 

  1. Use pre-cut materials – This will eliminate the need to cut wood on site, thereby reducing the amount of wood dust exposure
  2. Use toxic free/less toxic substances – This includes solvent free wood glue and varnish
  3. Avoid any wood listed as ‘high risk’ such as Western Red Cedar.  This can cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis – a disease which can cause progressive lung damage
  4. Use power tools with an in-built dust extraction

Even with these measures, wood dust still needs to be carefully controlled. There are various types of regulation compliance that you need to undertake in order to comply with your legal responsibilities. 

Controls and measures 

Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV)

LEV will help you to manage dust and fumes at the source. LEV systems, also known as extraction or fume control, can be used to control dust and fumes as a result of woodworking.  Over time, the performance of these systems can decline due to wear and tear or blockage. Regular inspection and testing (roughly every 12-14 months) needs to be done to comply with COSHH. This is necessary ­to ensure the LEV systems are operating effectively and wood dust is kept controlled. 

Employers are required by law to provide safe working environments and protect employee health, as outlined in the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations and HSG258 Guide to LEV 

Air quality monitoring 

The many benefits of improved air quality include:

  • Lower absenteeism due to fewer respiratory illnesses
  • higher productivity owing to your workforce 
  • less time spent  handling complaints

And, when the quality of air in the workplace is unsatisfactory, workers can become ill. This can have a direct impact on your overall productivity, as well as setting you up for an impromptu visit from the HSE! Importantly, regular air quality monitoring will help you to identify how much wood dust is present in the air, including the total Inhalable Dust, and total Respirable Dust. 

Respirable dust is made up of particles that can reach even the deep areas of the lungs and cause long-term damage. This makes air quality monitoring an essential step in your workplace compliance. 

Managing a healthy workforce

Wood dust doesn’t just affect those people directly working with wood. How many of your staff members need to cut through the workshop or factory to get to another department? Or how many members of your staff have a hybrid role that includes working in different places? 

Decreasing exposure to wood dust should be looked at from a holistic perspective. This includes providing a safe working environment for all employees. In addition to our suggestions above,  you should take into account how many of your workforce need extra monitoring or health surveillance. This is something that you can discuss with your health and safety officer, or if needed, someone at Safety First Group. 

Why Safety First Group?

We have real-time experience gained over 10 years of working with carpenters and other woodworkers to monitor their exposure to wood dust. This includes LEV inspection, occupational exposure monitoring, COSHH and more! 

If you are ready to get started, one of our friendly team is on hand to help you with your wood dust and air quality monitoring. You can call us on 0845 004 2133 or send an enquiry to us at where you can tell us in more detail how we can help you. 

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