Wood Dust Health Hazards and Precautions

Woodworking sawdust

Wood dust (also known as sawdust) is notorious for their negative effect on health. Skin irritation, eye infections, respiratory problems and even cancer. We can’t stress enough how important it is for people employed in the woodworking business to keep themselves safe. Those that indulge in woodworking as a hobby, should seriously consider their personal protection and acquire some if they lack in this department. Having the right tools might be important for finishing your projects, but staying healthy and safe will win you more in the long run.

How is sawdust dangerous for you

Saw dust is accumulated in the woodworking process when you are treating timber by milling, drilling or sanding. The fine wood particle, a byproduct of those and other operations, can easily be inhaled and become the reason for occupational dust exposure. This fine dust basically builds up in your lungs, causing you to feel a lack of air and exhaustion.

The wood dust from some timbers can even cause allergic reactions. Those could be dangerous to certain people, even if they are not inhaling sawdust. When the particles come in contact with exposed skin, they can cause rashes, severe irritation and other allergic reactions.

Non-allergic-related symptoms such as dryness in the throat and nasals, repeated episodes of sinusitis and itching are also connected to sawdust.

Wood dust and cancer

The connection between the exposure to wood dust and nasal cancer (nasopharyngeal carcinoma) has been established through human epidemiologic studies, case reports and cohort studies. The risk of developing the disease is higher amongst those exposed to wood dust, of course. However, those exposed to the carcinogen (wood dust) also have a higher chance of developing lung cancer. Many factors may help or prevent the sickness from developing and although we can’t pinpoint all of them, we shouldn’t disregard the known fact that pollutants in the air like wood dust are a serious threat to our health and we should do our best to protect ourselves. The UK government established a Workplace Exposure Limit (​WEL​) for both, soft and hardwood dust.

  • WEL for hardwood dust – 3mg/m3 (based on an 8-hour time-weighted average);
  • WEL for softwood dust – 5mg/m3 (based on an 8-hour time-weighted average);

The reason behind why softwood dust WEL is slightly higher is based on statistics. In the Nordic countries there are fewer cases of lung cancer registered and the workers there are mainly exposed to softwood dust. As we have mentioned above, many factors play their role, but for now, we can only rely on the statistics we have. This is why no one can give an exact answer on how much exposure to wood dust is dangerous. It heavily depends on surrounding factors and physics and other conditions regarding every single person.

How are respiratory problems caused by wood dust treated

Modern medicine pushes towards inhalation treatment. A method where the medicine is not being injected or taken as a tablet, but rather inhaled by the patient. This way it quickly reaches the exact spot where it is needed and provides relief. Wood dust inhalation treatment proves effective in patients with wood dust allergy and those suffering from asthma. Other than that, traditional methods are still in use, but if you think you need professional help, this is not the place. We advise you to get in touch with your doctor and discuss your issue as soon as possible.

Sawdust control

In working environments where a higher concentration of sawdust is to be expected, there should be a well-built wood dust extraction system. The role of the extraction system is to capture small particles and filter them through ​wood dust extractor filter bags​ off the air before they disperse in the facility. Some woodworking tools have an integrated dust extraction system already installed on them. Such systems may not be sufficient enough, in some cases, and that is when an additional LEV system should be installed. Dust extraction is the main method for wood dust control. It takes care of fine dust from various types of wood. It needs to happen quickly, especially when dealing with smaller, finer particles, which are harder to capture when released in the airflow and filter them off.

Regardless of how efficient your dust extraction system is, you should always work with a proper RPPE. This is where respirators come in. They are a mandatory step towards complying with COSHH regulations and should not be disregarded! Make sure you evaluate the number of pollutants present in the air and their type, so you can pick the right type of respirator for your application. Wood dust risk assessment should be done regularly within facilities where a lot of woodworking procedures are being performed. Oversleeves and full coveralls could be distributed to employees working with wood types that are known allergens. And last but not least, protective glasses are a must! Sawdust could easily find its way into a humans eye and it is not only irritating, but it can also lead to serious trauma and even scratches on the cornea.

Another key element towards the control over sawdust and its harm on you and your employees is to perform regular health checks. Those health checks could be done by a doctor or a nurse and should consist of careful examination of the skin and questions about overall health, and more specifically about breathing especially while indulging in more demanding activities or exercise.

There is more specific advice for different tools and operations, provided within the COSHH regulations.