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June 18, 2024

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How much exposure to wood dust is dangerous? 

SHP hears from consultancy Praxis42 on the exposure, control and monitoring of wood dust. 

Employers have a legal responsibility to make sure their employees are not exposed to dangerous levels of wood dust, under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002.

Earlier this year, Esken Renewables Ltd were fined £160,000 because employees were exposed to harmful levels of wood dust and the company had failed to design and operate processes to minimise the spread of wood dust.

Here we talk about the dangers of wood dust exposure, what an employer’s legal responsibilities are, and what practical safety measures can be put in place to protect employees and organisations.

What are the health risks of wood dust?

Credit: Unsplash/Marek Studzin

These are the primary health risks associated with prolonged exposure to wood dust:

Respiratory illnesses

Wood dust can trigger or worsen asthma. In fact, carpenters and joiners are four times more likely to develop asthma than those in any other profession.

Wood dust can also lead to allergic reactions including rhinitis (inflammation of nasal passages) and dermatitis (skin inflammation).

Long-term exposure can contribute to the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) because asthma and allergies increase someone’s chances of developing this condition.

Although rare, long-term inhalation of wood dust can also lead to scarring of the lung tissue (pulmonary fibrosis), which can impair lung function.


Prolonged exposure to wood dust has been associated with an increased risk of nasal and sinus cancer.

Skin irritation

Direct contact with wood dust can cause skin irritation and dermatitis, which is characterised by red, itchy, and inflamed skin.

Eye irritation

Wood dust can irritate the eyes, leading to redness, itching, and watering. In severe cases, it may cause conjunctivitis (inflammation of the outer membrane of the eye).

What activities cause the greatest exposure to wood dust?

  • Credit: Peter Titmuss / Alamy Stock

    Sanding, sawing and planing wood generates fine wood dust particles which can be easily inhaled.

  • Wood routers, used for hollowing out an area in wood, can create a large amount of dust.
  • Activities involving chisels, knives, lathes and other tools for carving, turning, shaping or milling wood produce fine dust particles.
  • Drilling holes into wood and cutting wood with various types of saws (table saws, band saws, jigsaws etc.) can create a lot of dust.
  • Cleaning up wood dust in workshops or construction sites can resuspend dust particles into the air.
  • Industrial wood processing, such as in furniture manufacturing or lumber mills, often involves significant wood dust production.
  • Home improvement or hobby projects involving wood can also cause significant dust exposure.

What are an employer’s legal responsibilities?

Employers have a legal duty, under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, to protect employees from the harmful effects of wood dust.

The COSHH regulations specify:

  • Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) for wood dust.
  • The mandatory use and maintenance of local exhaust ventilation systems (LEVs).
  • The implementation of health surveillance programmes.

Exposure limits

For hardwood dust the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) is 3mg/m3 based on an 8-hour time span.

For softwood dust the WEL limit is 5mg/m3 based on 8 hours.

Hardwood dust is considered more dangerous than softwood dust which is why the WEL limits are different. However, both types of wood dust are classed as Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

For more information on exposure limits, please see the Health and Safety Executive’s webpage on wood dust.

Local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems

face maskLEV systems must be provided at woodworking machines. Installing LEV systems at points of dust generation, such as saws, sanders, and other woodworking machines, helps capture dust at the source and prevent it from spreading.

LEV systems are designed to capture and remove airborne contaminants at their source before they can spread into the workspace. These systems are particularly effective in controlling dust, fumes, vapours, and other hazardous substances that can be harmful to workers.

By law, LEV systems must be maintained by a competent person at least every 14 months.

Health surveillance

Employers must provide health surveillance for employees working with wood dust. This is to ensure health issues are detected early on and the protection measures implemented are effective.

How can wood dust levels be monitored?

Wood dust levels can be monitored through personal monitoring and area monitoring.

Personal monitoring involves measuring the dust exposure of individual employees. Personal sampling pumps are worn by workers, usually attached to their clothing near the breathing zone (close to the nose and mouth). The pump draws air through a filter that captures wood dust particles, which can then be used to determine the exposure level.

Area monitoring involves measuring the dust concentration in a specific area or throughout the workplace. Devices are left in place for several hours to provide the most accurate readings of dust concentrations in the air.

How can you reduce wood dust in the air?

These are the most effective measures for controlling wood dust levels:


Where possible, use materials that generate less dust or are less hazardous. For example, consider using pre-cut or pre-finished wood products.

Wet methods

Wood can be dampened with water before cutting or sanding to reduce the amount of dust in the air.

Work techniques

Employ work techniques that produce less dust, such as cutting with sharp blades and using hand tools instead of power tools when possible.

Local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems

LEV systems are a legal requirement in woodworking environments under COSHH Regulations (see above).

Dust extraction systems

Dust extraction systems aim to remove different types of dust particles from the air, including wood dust.

Air filtration units

Air filtration units with HEPA filters clean the air in general by removing particulates and contaminants, reducing airborne dust levels.


Underfloor ducting systems collect dust directly from machinery and workstations. This helps to keep the floor area clear and reduces dust accumulation.

Overhead ducting is a way to capture dust from above, preventing it from settling on work surfaces and equipment.

Enclosures and barriers

Machines and processes that generate wood dust can be enclosed to contain wood dust. Physical barriers or air curtains can separate dusty operations from other work areas and direct airflow to prevent dust from spreading.

Work area design

Work areas can be designed so that dust accumulation is minimised and cleaning is much easier.

  • Use materials that have smooth, non-porous surfaces for workbenches, floors, and walls. Surfaces such as stainless steel, polished concrete, or coated wood can be easier to clean and less likely to trap dust.
  • Position dust-generating machines (like saws and sanders) near dust extraction points or within enclosures.
  • Use closed cabinets and drawers for storing tools and materials instead of open shelves. This prevents dust from settling on stored items and makes cleaning easier.
  • Keep work areas as uncluttered as possible. Remove unnecessary items and equipment that can trap dust.
  • Implement tool management systems such as pegboards or tool racks that keep tools off work surfaces and make it easier to clean around them.


It is important to implement regular cleaning procedures to remove accumulated dust from surfaces, floors and equipment. Vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters are more effective than dry sweeping or compressed air which can resuspend dust.

Provide convenient and efficient waste disposal systems, such as sealed bins or vacuum-assisted disposal systems, to ensure collected dust is disposed of properly and doesn’t re-enter the workspace.

Remember those responsible for cleaning wood dust are at risk from exposure too.

How can employers minimise wood dust exposure?

As well as taking steps to minimise the amount of dust in the air, employers can implement the following safety measures:

Health surveillance

Monitoring employees’ health is a legal requirement under COSHH Regulations (see above).

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Provide dust masks or respirators that are specifically designed to filter out fine wood dust particles. Ensure that respirators are properly fitted and comply with relevant safety standards such as FFP2, FFP3, or N95.

Also provide safety goggles to protect eyes from wood dust particles that can cause irritation, and gloves to reduce skin exposure to dust.

Encourage employees to wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers made from tightly woven fabrics to prevent dust from coming into contact with the skin.

Safety training

Provide training sessions on wood dust hazards, safe work practices, and the proper use of PPE. Training should cover the health risks associated with wood dust and the importance of dust control measures.

Make sure employees understand emergency procedures related to wood dust exposure, including first aid measures and how to respond to high dust levels.

Equipment training

Provide employees with training on how to use woodworking machinery safely and efficiently.

Also ensure those responsible for cleaning and maintaining dust extraction systems have the expertise to make sure machinery is working properly.

Communication and reporting

Easy reporting and communication systems should be put in place so employees can swiftly report any issues with dust extraction systems, PPE or significant dust accumulation to supervisors or safety officers.

There should also be a mechanism for employees to provide feedback on existing dust control measures and suggest improvements based on their daily work experience.

Controlling wood dust exposure

The irreversible health conditions associated with wood dust exposure and the case of Turners and Moore in Norwich underscore the severe consequences of failing to protect employees.

Managing wood dust exposure is critical to create a safer working environment and maintain compliance with regulatory standards.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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