Wood dust

Wood dust consists of tiny particles of wood produced during the processing and handling of wood, chipboard, hardboard, MDF (medium density fibreboard) and other composite boards.

The elimination or control of risks from wood dust is required by the following legislation:

  • Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974
  • Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR)
  • Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002.

In a school or college environment, this information is relevant to these involved in woodworking as part of the national curriculum for design and technology.

What are the hazards?

The following health problems are among the effects associated with exposure to wood dust:

  • skin disorders
  • obstruction in the nose and rhinitis
  • asthma (on which the NEU has produced a briefing Asthma in Schools)
  • cancer, in certain cases.

Health and safety precautions

1. Slipping and tripping

Wood dust on the floor of a workshop or CDT (craft, design and technology) classroom can cause tripping or slipping. See the NEU’s briefing Slips, Trips and Falls.

2. Exposure

Regulation 6(1) of the COSHH regulations requires an assessment to be made (and recorded) of risks to health associated with wood dust, together with any action needed to prevent or control those risks.

Regulation 7(1) goes on to say that exposure to wood dust should be prevented, or where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled.

Workplace exposure limits

Hardwood dust and softwood dust have been assigned workplace exposure limits (WELs) of 5mg/m³ (8 hour time weighted average) under the COSHH regulations. Exposure by inhalation to wood dust should, therefore, be reduced so far as is reasonably practicable and in any case below the WEL.

Precautions

The risk to health from exposure to dust can be assessed by:

  • finding out if exposure is being adequately controlled – a dust lamp can be used to show up the dust and its source.
  • where necessary, carrying out dust sampling and determining whether teachers and pupils will be exposed to dust levels in excess of the WEL.

Control measures

1. Local exhaust ventilation equipment can be provided to stop dust entering the classroom or workshop.

2. All equipment should be properly maintained. Ventilation ducts should be regularly cleaned to prevent blockages and filter units should be maintained to an adequate standard.

3. Personal protective equipment should be provided such as goggles, dust masks, overalls and gloves where necessary.

4. Workshops should be regularly cleaned to keep the area free of dust and wood chippings – damp sprayed before cleared up. Vacuum cleaners should have filters.

5. Washing facilities should be provided with hot and cold water, towels and soap.

Medium density fibreboard (MDF)

MDF contains woodchip, sawdust and other similar wood waste and is typically composed of 98 per cent softwood and two per cent hardwood. The material is bound together with a formaldehyde resin, although formaldehyde-free MDF is also available.

The HSE advises that the health effects of MDF dust are similar to those of ordinary wood dust. There is evidence, however, that formaldehyde has a carcinogenic effect in animals. MDF has a WEL of 5mg/m³.

A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) survey monitoring exposure to formaldehyde during machining of MDF found levels to be substantially below the maximum exposure limit which operated at that time.

Since this study (in the 1990s), the amount of formaldehyde used in resin in MDF has been reduced. According to the HSE, therefore, effective control of MDF dust, combined with good natural ventilation, should provide adequate control for any formaldehyde vapour in that dust.

Safety representatives checklist

1. Ensure that a risk assessment is undertaken and regularly reviewed.

2. Ensure control measures are in place such as:

  • provision of ventilation equipment
  • personal protective equipment provided
  • regular and thorough cleaning of workshops
  • washing facilities provided.

Need further advice? 

The TUC provides comprehensive advice for health and safety representatives in their Dust in the Workplace guide.

The NEU has produced a number of health and safety briefings relating to this subject:

  • Asthma in Schools
  • Asbestos in Schools
  • Slips, Trips and Falls