Wood dust safety in your workplace - expert tips to protect your team

Wood dust is often created or generated by machines that eject fine particulate dust into the atmosphere when processing different types of wood materials. If not properly controlled, this dust can cause significant health problems to machine operators or anyone working in and around processing operations.  

There are three notable types of wood dust that are prominent in mill operations:

  • Hardwood –such as oak, teak and mahogany
  • Softwood – such as pine, fir and spruce
  • MDF - Medium density fibreboard (MDF) produces finer dust when machined because it is engineered with several types of wood and bound in resin.

How does wood dust occur?

Wood dust is predominantly generated by mechanical means due to the nature and speed of the machining process. The following activities can create significant amounts of dust in the workplace: 

  • Cutting or sawing
  • Sanding (which involves lots of dust generation)
  • Routing
  • Changing dust bags
  • Dry sweeping

What health issues can wood dust cause?

Wood dust can cause a number of short and long-term ill health conditions. The most notable ill health effects that can be caused by wood dust are:

  • Respiratory illnesses, such as occupational asthma
  • Lung cancer
  • Irritation to the respiratory tract
  • Irritation to the eyes and nose
  • Dermatitis and other skin complaints

What are your responsibilities as an employer?

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 2002 (COSHH) Regulations set out our duties as employers to protect people from exposure to hazardous substances - including wood dust - so far as reasonably practicable.

This means that we have to appropriately assess the risks to our employees and implement control measures proportionate to the risk associated with our workplace practices.

We can determine this by being aware of the types of substances we are exposed to. These are often known as Workplace Exposure Limits or WELs. For instance, softwood has a WEL of 5mg per m3 and hardwood dust, known to be more hazardous, has a WEL of 3mg per m3. We have a duty under COSHH not to exceed these limits.

NB. Should wood dusts become mixed together, we must ALWAYS look to not exceed the lower WEL of 3mg/m3.

We can achieve this with a collective approach, using a variety of methods:

  • Install Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV), which is widely viewed as the most effective control method of airborne particulate dusts.
  • Ensure dry sweeping is prohibited within a mill or machining area.
  • Provide HEPA filter or M Class vacuums to aid cleaning up excess wood dust in areas that cannot be reached by LEV extensions.
  • Provide staff with appropriate PPE, such as FFP3 masks and gloves, when changing dust bags.
  • If engaging in sanding, it is recommended that Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) is provided and used in addition to LEV.
  • Where FFP3 masks are required, you need to give consideration to face fit testing as part of your risk assessment.
  • If you believe that the above controls are not suitable and sufficient, consider the implementation of occupational health lung function testing (Spirometry) or air monitoring to determine the exposure levels that remain.

Additional tips

In addition to the above controls, there are a few handy tips that can further control wood dust within the workplace:

  • A high-powered dust lamp can identify areas that are particularly hazardous during certain processes, potentially negating the need for air monitoring. If we can see where dust is most prominent, we can engage the controls above.
  • We would recommend that you do not fill dust bags over two-thirds full. This is because overfilling can lead to spillage and the generation of excess dust. Similarly, dust bags can negatively draw and block ductwork if they are too full. Overloaded bags can also have an impact on manual handling.

For further information on controlling wood dust in your workplace, talk to an Opus Safety expert. We're here to help on 0330 043 4015 or