It’s time to clear the air!

Wood dust (hardwood and softwood) can cause serious health problems and, if not managed correctly, can lead to occupational asthma or cancer, particularly of the nose (sino-nasal cancer). There are an estimated 13,000 deaths each year primarily linked to dust and chemical exposures at work and 14,000 estimated new cases of breathing or lung problems annually – source HSE Health and safety at work Summary statistics for Great Britain 2016.

Joiners and carpenters are four times more likely to develop asthma when compared to other UK workers.


Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 employers have a legal responsibility to protect workers and ensure they are not exposed to any concentration of substance in excess of the Workplace Exposure Limits (WEL) for that substance. The WEL for wood dust is expressed as a time weighted average (TWA) over an 8-hour period.

Workplace Exposure

The current Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) for wood dust is 5mg/m3 8hr TWA. However, from January 2020 hardwood & mixed wood dust will be reduced to 3mg/m3 and then to 2mg/m3 in 2024. It is likely that softwood will also be reduced to these levels. To comply with the requirements, you must be below the WEL and reduce exposure to be as low as reasonably practicable.

Exposure Monitoring

Particle sizes can be 2-10 microns and not visible to the naked eye. Therefore exposure monitoring is the only sure method of determining the levels within your workshop to establish whether improvements are necessary..

This means measuring the substance in the air that the worker breathes while the task is underway. Exposure can vary from day to day and may be higher on a day when no measurements are taken. Therefore, if the results for a given task are below one third of the exposure limit, your controls are probably good enough.

Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV)

You must provide dust extraction (LEV) at woodworking machines to capture and remove dust before it can be spread. LEV must have a Thorough Examination and Test to Regulation 9 of COSHH carried out by a competent person at least every 14 months.

This also includes ‘on-tool’ extraction for portable, hand-held machines such as disc and belt sanders.

Respiratory Protective Equipment

Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) i.e. dust masks, are the last resort and should be used only after preventative measures have been taken to reduce the exposure to the lowest reasonable level.

Remember, employees wearing tight fitting RPE must be clean shaven and be face fit tested by a trained, competent person.


Finally, never sweep up dust 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.

The video below is published by the HSE and demonstrates the levels of wood dust that employees can be exposed to.

Health & Safety Help are able to provide workplace assessments, dust monitoring and face fit testing. Contact us for further information

Reference information