Woodworking businesses in the UK form a vital sector within the country's industrial landscape, serving various industries and meeting diverse market demands. However, amidst the bustling production and manufacturing processes, a hidden danger lurks, posing a serious threat to the health of employees: wood dust.
The Hazards of Wood Dust
Wood dust is generated during various woodworking processes, such as cutting, sanding, and shaping. Even dry sweeping of dust creates dust clouds that can be breathed in. Although it may seem harmless, prolonged exposure to wood dust can have severe consequences for employees' health. The fine particles released from wood can contain harmful substances, including allergens, toxic chemicals, and even carcinogens. When breathed in, wood dust can damage the lungs causing asthma, rhinitis, and even cancer.
[Wood dust exposure] can cause asthma, which carpenters and joiners are four times more likely to get compared with other UK workers.
The inhalation of wood dust can lead to a range of respiratory problems. The most common of these is occupational asthma, which produces symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma or chronic bronchitis, are particularly vulnerable to exacerbations caused by wood dust exposure.
Certain types of wood, such as oak and beech, release carcinogenic substances when their dust is inhaled. Prolonged exposure to these substances can significantly increase the risk of developing cancer, particularly nasal and sinus cancers. Additionally, wood dust has been classified as a Group 1 human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Irritation and Dermatitis
Wood dust can also cause irritation and dermatitis when it comes into contact with the skin. This can lead to redness, itching, and even the development of allergic reactions. Workers who frequently handle wood or work in an environment with high levels of airborne wood dust should take precautions to protect their skin, such as wearing appropriate protective clothing and using barrier creams.
The Importance of Occupational Health Lung Function Testing
To mitigate the risks associated with wood dust exposure, woodworking businesses are required by law to put effective health and safety measures in place. These might include:
Ventilation Systems: Install and maintain local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems to effectively capture and remove wood dust at its source. Regular inspections and maintenance ensure optimal performance.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Provide appropriate PPE, such as respiratory masks, safety goggles, and protective clothing, to minimize direct contact with wood dust. Train employees on proper usage, maintenance, and storage of PPE.
Work Practices: Encourage safe work practices, such as wetting or vacuuming dust instead of dry sweeping, to reduce dust dispersion. Regular cleaning of work areas and equipment is essential to minimise dust accumulation.
Training and Education: Conduct comprehensive training programs to educate employees about the hazards of wood dust, proper handling techniques, and the importance of personal hygiene. Regular refresher courses keep safety practices fresh in employees' minds.
One crucial aspect of ensuring the health of woodworking employees is regular health surveillance medicals by a competent occupational health clinician. These are likely to include lung function testing and skin surveillance. Here's why it matters:
Early Detection of Respiratory & Skin Issues
Lung function tests, such as spirometry, measure how well a person's lungs are working. By conducting these tests periodically, woodworking businesses can detect any decline in lung function at an early stage, enabling timely intervention and treatment. Regular skin checks should be carried out by a “responsible” person - this can be a non-medical member of staff who has had proper training and who can refer problems to occupational health when appropriate. Occupational health skin checks can also be carried out at regular intervals as part of ongoing health surveillance. Early detection allows for the implementation of appropriate controls to minimise further exposure to wood dust and prevent the progression of respiratory and skin diseases.
Evaluating the Effectiveness of Safety Measures
Occupational health lung function testing plays a vital role in evaluating the effectiveness of existing safety measures. By comparing the lung function test results of employees over time, businesses can assess whether their control measures, such as ventilation systems, personal protective equipment, and dust extraction methods, are adequately protecting workers from wood dust exposure. This information can guide the implementation of additional or improved measures to ensure a safer working environment.
Promoting Employee Health and Well-being
By prioritising lung function testing, woodworking businesses demonstrate their commitment to employee health and wellbeing. Regular testing not only helps identify potential respiratory issues but also provides an opportunity to educate employees about the risks of wood dust exposure and the importance of proper safety practices. This proactive approach fosters a culture of safety, empowering workers to take ownership of their health and encouraging them to actively participate in maintaining a healthy work environment.
Woodworking businesses must recognise the potential dangers associated with wood dust and take proactive measures to protect their employees' health. By understanding the hazards of wood dust and implementing effective health and safety measures, including regular occupational health lung function testing, employers can ensure the wellbeing of their workforce and ensure they are acting within the law.
Woodworking medicals in Kent
All Health Matters provides woodworking medicals including lung function testing and skin checks for woodworking businesses in Kent and
the southeast. Health surveillance can also include hearing tests and HAVS screening as well as any other woodworking medical assessments identified by your risk assessment.
AHM also offers “responsible person” skin checker training to help your employees recognise the signs of skin problems, how to prevent them, and when to refer to occupational health.
The HSE is currently targeting woodworking businesses. For more information and to make sure you are prepared for an inspection, they have produced these resources to protect workers’ respiratory health:
· Visit the Dust Kills woodworking campaign website
· Download the free guidance for woodworking (.pdf)