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Wood dust and the hierarchy of control measures

People sometimes misunderstand the facts about wood dust. If you are a woodturner, this is what you should know.

All dust is a hazard

All airborne wood dust is hazardous. That includes hardwood dust, softwood dust and MDF dust. MDF dust is not worse than other kinds. But it easily makes a lot of dust, and more dust can mean more risk. All are capable of causing serious harm such as dermatitis, breathing problems and even cancer. It is not a question of the wood’s toxicity or your individual sensitivity. If some timber species are more dangerous than others, it is hard to say which ones. The proof of harm comes from the mortality of long-term workers in the furniture industry, working with timbers such as beech.
A ‘hazard’ is something with potential to cause harm. That doesn’t necessarily mean that harm will result. That depends on the degree of exposure to it, what precautions you take, and possibly individual susceptibility. The likelihood that harm will actually result is the ‘risk’. As a woodworker, you expose yourself to the dust hazard. To protect yourself, you have to control the risk to the extent you are comfortable with.

Risk depends on exposure

The risk depends on how much dust is present and how long you spend breathing it in. So an occasional turner working green (less dusty) wood is at less risk than the dedicated person who spends long hours hunched over the lathe hand-sanding dry and dusty stuff. Only a small proportion of those exposed to wood dust are likely to get cancer as a result, but turners can easily expose themselves to very high dust levels, well above the legal limit for commercial workshops, at least for short periods. There is no absolutely safe dust level, but if you keep within the legal standards for commercial workplaces the risk is low.
There may be species of wood that you as an individual are allergic to. You may develop dermatitis or breathing problems even after minimal exposure to them. But other species to which you are not now sensitive are hazardous to you as well, just as they are to other people. And you may develop an allergy to another species at any time, even after years of working with it.
Lots of things in the turner’s workshop generate wood dust. Turning, sanding, sawing and sweeping all make clouds of dust. Special lighting reveals it. The fine particles that are most hazardous are almost invisible in the air, and stay airborne for a long time.

Commercial workshops

In a commercial workshop in the UK, the COSHH regulations apply. They require that the risk of wood dust is kept at a level that is unlikely to result in harm. This should preferably be done by using work methods that do not generate dust. Failing that, by removing the dust at source before anyone breaths it in, or by using personal protective equipment such as overalls and breathing masks. In commercial workshops where the law applies, that is the order of choice required. This is a sensible rule in other places too, because masks are never fully effective. It is much better to keep the dust out of the air in the first place.
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