Woodwork and the Dangers of Sawdust

If your job involves working with wood, you may be exposed to large amounts of hardwood dust on a regular basis.

This can be toxic and lead to a number of health problems, unless you are sufficiently protected under your employer’s duty-of-care at work.

For health reasons, new lower limits of dust exposure are going to be introduced to help protect workers from developing nasal cancer or conditions like severe asthma.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) want to understand how this will affect people’s businesses, so they’re currently asking woodworkers to complete a 10-minute survey (closes Friday 20th July) - you can find the survey here, and find out more about it below.

Our article will take a closer look at the dangers of woodworking and encourage employers to ensure their workers are protected against inhaling excessive amounts of wood dust.

Jump to:


Sawdust and Health Hazards

Woodworking Safety and Protection Against Wood Dust

Wood Dust and Cancer

Do You Work with Wood?  


The main jobs involving woodwork include carpentry, joinery, woodcarving, woodturning, and furniture or cabinet making.

Over recent years, the woodworking industry has changed significantly because of modern-day developments in technology – workers now use the latest wood-cutting machines to get a job done exquisitely.

The main materials involved are:

  • Hardwoods (beech, mahogany, maple, oak, walnut)
  • Softwoods (pine, cedar, Douglas fir, redwood)
  • Man-made wood like MDF and plywood.

Cutting the wood is an essential aspect of the many job roles. This produces occupational sawdust, which can be inhaled into workers’ lungs.

A concern of many workers is “can wood dust cause cancer?” The answer, unfortunately, is yes. If you aren’t sufficiently protected and you inhale excessive amounts of hardwood dust, it could lead to a life-changing industrial disease, like nose cancer.

Sawdust and Health Hazards

When carrying out jobs like sawing, sanding, milling, planing or routing – sawdust is produced as a by-product of the wood.

As well as an irritant, wood dust is a carcinogen and contains toxins, so breathing in wood dust can bring on severe allergies, other respiratory conditions and a rare type of nasal cancer.

People can be affected by sawdust through dust inhalation, and skin or eye contact.

The Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) for hardwood and softwood is 5mg/m³

This is the maximum amount of saw dust that should be present in the workplace, averaged out over an 8-hour working day.

Your employer must make sure that the level of sawdust does not exceed this limit and all workers are protected from workshop hazards – as stated by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH).

If you are self-employed, it is vital that you follow woodwork health and safety rules to protect yourself.

Woodworking Safety and Protection Against Wood Dust

To control the amount of exposure to wood dust and reduce the risk, it is the employer’s responsibility to:

  • Provide Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) systems for dust extraction: they must be placed near the machinery to suck in and remove as much dust as possible before it spreads around the workplace. All systems must be regularly checked and maintained.
  • Educate all workers on wood dust, the risks involved, how to protect themselves and how to use the extraction equipment.
  • Provide an industrial vacuum cleaner: workers must not sweep up the dust as this disturbs it, meaning that the dust particles can be easily inhaled.
  • Provide appropriate Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) for workers to use when carrying out really dusty jobs like sanding.

Employees also have the responsibility of listening and paying attention to all rules regarding wood dust control, and they must follow all safety rules in a woodwork room, so that lives are saved and jobs are more enjoyable.

The HSE have woodworking videos that demonstrate how to improve dust control and clean up safely:

1. http://www.hse.gov.uk/woodworking/wood-dust-exposure.htm


 For more information on controlling wood dust and the employer’s responsibility, see the HSE’s page here.

Wood Dust and Cancer

Carpenter Roy Taylor, from Eastbourne, died from a rare type of nasal cancer in 2009. It stemmed from his job role and not being completely protected from saw dust.

Mr Taylor had suffered with sinus problems, and after being transferred to the hospital by his doctor, he was told that a tumour in his nose was not malignant. However, he was diagnosed with a rare form of nasal cancer over two months later.

Symptoms after inhaling sawdust can include the following:

  • Irritation in the nose, ears and/or throat
  • Headaches
  • Double vision
  • Consistent coughing or sneezing
  • Rhinorrhea
  • Fever
  • Aches and Pains
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Laryngitis
  • Bronchitis
  • Nasopharyngitis

If you experience one or more of the above symptoms, it is best to seek medical attention straight away.

After an inquest into his death as a case of medical negligence, Mr Taylor’s wife hoped that his story would spread awareness of the dangers when working with wood.

Do You Work With Wood?

If the answer is yes, it would be a big help for the HSE if those in the wood-working industry completed their survey. It closes on 20th July 2018 and only takes around 10-15 minutes – complete the survey here.

This week, Cute Injury interviewed a self-employed local tradesman and entrepreneur Alex Nutty, from Porthcawl, about his role that involves working with wood.

Carpentry is his speciality and he stated that creating something out of wood is a true passion of his.

Being around saw dust is becoming a regular occurrence for him, so he is currently looking into fitting high-quality LEV systems inside his workshop and after every job, he makes sure he cleans up appropriately – these measures will help massively towards protecting his health.

Mr Nutty took the time to complete the HSE’s survey, and a few of the general questions asked were:

  • Do you or anyone in your business use saws, routers or sanders for working with wood?
  • Do the operators of the saws wear respiratory protective equipment (RPE)?
  • Do you believe your business will need to make any changes to wood dust controls and/or cleaning/maintenance practices when the exposure limit for hardwood dust is reduced to 2mg/m³ in 2023?

His answers, and those of other workers, are anonymous. They will all help the HSE to get a better understanding of what should be done moving forward, and how the upcoming changes to the dust exposure limit will help tradesmen.

Cute Injury and Industrial Disease

If you’re an employer of people who work with wood, or if you are self-employed, it is vital that you consider all risks and follow all safety measures to prevent any work-related illnesses or diseases.

If you feel you have been affected by wood dust and haven’t been protected by your employer, contact us today to see how we can help you.

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