Wood has been an essential part of modern life for centuries. We use wood for all kinds of products, including lumber for houses, paper for writing, and wood pulp for fuel.
However, while wood is essential and highly practical, it can also be dangerous. Working with wood can generate dust, leading to various health and occupational hazards. Since most workers may assume that wood dust is relatively harmless, it's imperative to discuss the potential dangers. This article covers everything you need to know about wood dust hazards and how to mitigate them.
What is Wood Dust?
This term refers to the byproduct of processing wood. Whether sanding, cutting, sewing, or drilling, workers can generate massive amounts of wood dust, which often gets sprayed into the air. In most cases, this dust is made of fine particles, but sometimes they can be somewhat large and bulky. The more a piece of wood is processed, the more dust it generates.
In some cases, wood dust is created due to wear and tear. For example, workers may be exposed to small amounts of dust particles when moving old wooden furniture. Pests like termites can also create wood dust as they chew through the material.
What are the Dangers of Wood Dust?
Because wood is such an integral part of modern life, most people wouldn't think to ask, "is wood dust toxic?" After all, the wood itself isn't hazardous, so why would its dust be a problem? Unfortunately, this dust is dangerous for a few reasons. Let's break them down.
First and foremost, wood is flammable. If you've ever tried starting a fire, you know that it's best to use kindling, aka slivers of wood. The smaller the pieces, the easier it is to set them on fire. Since wood dust is usually made of ultrafine particles, it can ignite almost immediately when exposed to a spark or flame.
Wood dust explosions can occur relatively quickly when a job site isn't cleaned properly. In some instances, the dust itself can "explode" when lit, causing a burst of flame. Not only can the fire spread throughout the building, but it can also injure nearby workers.
Slips and Falls
When wet, wood can become slippery. Wood dust itself can reduce friction on smooth surfaces, such as concrete or tile. So, if there is loose dust on the floor, workers can potentially slip and fall. Usually, these
injuries are relatively mild, but if an employee is carrying something heavy or dangerous (i.e., a saw), the incident can be much more serious.
Health Effects of Wood Dust
Common health effects of wood dust exposure include:
- Allergic Reactions
- Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma
- Lung Cancer
How Does the Type of Wood Affect One's Health?
One question to ask is, "how much exposure to wood dust is dangerous?" Unfortunately, there is no one standard to measure the toxicity of wood dust. As a rule, hobbyists and DIYers shouldn't have to worry as much as industrial workers. So, those who do light carpentry and sanding likely won't experience the same hazards as someone who processes wood for a living.
That said, even small amounts of wood dust can be dangerous if inhaled. The following section outlines the reasons why there are so many health hazards associated with wood dust.
Typically, this condition occurs with specific types of wood since the material can cause an allergic reaction to the skin. Some examples of trees that can cause dermatitis include alder, birch, fir, and mahogany.
In some cases, skin irritation, rashes, and bumps can occur immediately upon contact. In other instances, the condition only happens when a worker experiences prolonged exposure. Also, some people may react more severely than others, so symptoms can vary significantly between employees at a single job site.
In most cases, dermatitis is mild and can be treated with topical ointments and creams. Workers can prevent this condition by covering exposed skin while working with wood.
Wood dust often consists of ultrafine particles, which are easy to unknowingly inhale. If a worker does inhale these particles, they can irritate the lungs and trigger an asthmatic reaction. In serious cases, an employee may develop chronic asthma if they are exposed to wood dust regularly.
Beyond dermatitis, some wood species can cause adverse allergic reactions. In some instances, these reactions may be due to chemical treatments within the wood, such as insecticides and wood stains.
Other times, mold and fungus may be growing inside the wood, and they can wind up in the dust, causing severe reactions.
These incidents can trigger symptoms anywhere, including the skin, eyes, throat, lungs, and nasal passageways. Symptoms can include inflammation, swelling, itchy rashes, and bumps.
Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma and Lung Cancer
Wood dust is considered a group 1 carcinogen, meaning that there is much evidence showing a direct link between exposure and cancer. So, the more a worker is exposed to wood dust, the more likely they will develop cancer.
Since the easiest way for dust to enter the body is through the nose and mouth, nasopharyngeal carcinoma is one of the most common diseases caused by wood dust. Once the particles reach the lungs, they can aggravate the tissues and cause lung cancer.
There is also evidence showing a difference between hardwood and softwood and their effects on cancer. Hardwoods are more likely to cause the disease, so workers should be more careful when working with that type of wood. If you're unfamiliar with the difference, here is a quick summary:
- Hardwoods are also called deciduous trees, meaning that they lose their leaves during the winter and grow them back in the spring.
- Softwoods are evergreen trees that don't lose their leaves or needles. The actual hardness of the wood doesn't matter, as some "hardwoods" are actually soft, such as balsa wood.
Which Industries are Exposed to Wood Dust the Most?
Workers in the following industries need to worry the most about wood dust exposure. That said, any job site that processes wood and generates dust should invest in wood dust control measures for all employees such as proper ventilation systems for indoor work.
- Woodworking and Crafts
- Cleanup and Restoration Crews
Best Safety Practices for Handling Wood Dust Exposure
Since wood dust can be so hazardous, employers must provide safe working conditions for everyone on site. Following these guidelines can ensure that no one experiences any adverse health conditions, nor will there be any significant fire hazards.
Step One: Inform All Employees and Supervisors of the Potential Dangers
If workers don't believe that wood dust can be harmful, they're far less likely to follow safety precautions. Not only should employees be trained and educated on the various dangers, but supervisors should understand the risks and control measures better than anyone else. The more informed your crew is, the safer they are on the job.
Step Two: Provide Sufficient and Effective PPE
Depending on the situation, workers may need various personal protective equipment to avoid wood dust exposure. Examples of PPE for wood dust can include:
- Coveralls and Long Sleeve Shirts - These pieces can reduce the chances of dermatitis and other skin reactions like eczema by covering exposed skin.
- Safety Goggles - If wood dust gets into someone's eye, they need to be able to wash it out immediately. Goggles can prevent this incident from happening at all.
- High-Quality Face Mask or Respirator - Masks should be able to block out ultrafine particles. In some cases, workers may need a tight seal around their nose and mouth to ensure that no dust can get inside the mask. In extreme cases, individuals may need a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).
- Gloves - Not only can gloves help prevent dermatitis, but they can also mitigate potential machinery injuries, such as cuts, bruises, and scrapes.
Step Three: Utilize Dust Collection Systems
The best way to control wood dust is to collect it at the source. Fortunately, many wood-processing machines (i.e., saws, drills, and lathes) can be equipped with high-powered vacuum systems. These vacuums capture wood particles as they're made to prevent significant messes and prolonged dust exposure.
Step Four: Train Employees in Proper Cleanup Procedures
Even with vacuum systems in place, wood dust can spread throughout the job site. Workers should use dry vacuums to clean up any remaining particles as soon as they're done working with a specific machine. All dust should be collected immediately, including any messes on the floor.
Doing this right away ensures that employees won't slip and fall, nor will they accidentally breathe in any dust particles once they remove their masks and PPE. This also helps decrease the likelihood of a fire on the job site.
Step Five: Keep Eye and Hand Wash Stations Nearby
Although workers should be wearing goggles and gloves at all times, dust can sometimes get inside and irritate the skin and eyes. Having wash stations nearby ensures that employees can remove any particles immediately, thus mitigating any potential health conditions (i.e., allergic reactions or dermatitis).
Wood Dust PPE from International Enviroguard
As an employer, it's your responsibility to protect your workers from various job site hazards. Wood dust is far more prevalent than other materials, so you need to be prepared. International Enviroguard has everything you need, from masks to coveralls, to keep your employees safe. Browse our PPE for fine particulates, below.