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Sheila Pantry Associates Ltd


Focus Archive

Woodworking Can Damage Your Health

December 1997
Sheila Pantry, OBE

Many people are employed as a carpenter, carpenter-joiner, joiner, cabinet maker or woodworker in a variety of workplaces such as a construction sites, or as maintenance worker in organisations, or perhaps as a shipwright or in theatres as a stage carpenter. Whatever the background the same hazards can occur as the statistics show.

What are the hazards?

Whilst it is not possible to obtain accurate statistics, because of under-reporting, nevertheless attention has been focused on hardwood dusts which can cause nasal cancer. Softwood does not appear to have the same inherent risks although it too can adversely affect health especially when large quantities are involved. Some chemicals used have maximum exposure limits eg 1,1,1-trichloroethane (in some adhesives but now being phased out), dichloromethane (in paint strippers and adhesives), isocyanates (in some paints and varnishes), glycol ethers (in some varnishes) and arsensic pentoxide (in water based wood preservatives).

Accidents do occur in a variety of workplaces where woodworking activities are carried out, but in particular the additional inherent risks which carpenters face when working outside on construction projects should be also noted.

Accidents due to machinery

Bench circular saws, planing machines and vertical spindle moulding machine have long been recognised as the main source of woodworking machine (WWM) accidents.

WWMs usually require part of the cutting mechanism to be exposed during the work, and this enhances the risk, although certain types of machinery can be automatically fed where the operations are continuous.

Other types of accidents

A large number of slips, trips and falls do occur as well as manual handling injuries. Likewise accidents in a number of other areas such as electrical safety - due to machinery, portable tools, other working plant or fire/explosion, as well as the general installation itself do occur. Care should be taken with industrial vehicles, although such vehicles have traditionally been used less frequently in small joiners shops, they are to be found in larger premises to an increasing extent.

Handling of timber and board, falls from timber stacks and collapses of stacks have cause fatal injuries in the trade.

Health problems abound

Noise induced hearing problems, including deafness, are all too common in woodworking. Very often the attitude has been that it is all part of the job. Most basic WWMs are likely to expose the operator to hazardous sound levels when cutting. Many, including a large proportion of bench saws, planers, moulders and routers, have such high levels of noise that they can only be operated for 1-2 hours continuously before the operators average exposure over the WHOLE DAY will exceed 90bB(A).

Chemical Safety

Although joinery tends to be considered work which principally involves the use of machinery, there are nevertheless a number of chemicals used which can cause ill health. Many of these can be inhaled e.g. 1,1,1-trichloroethane, dichloromethane, isocyanantes (which have other health effects), certain glycol ethers and arsenic pentoxide. Other chemicals in use may be ingested (e.g. wood preservatives). Some pass through the skin (e.g. some wood preservatives and solvents). Certain substances are known to cause severe dermatitis (e.g. epoxy resins and timber preservatives)


Too much dust of any kind can adversely affect health and wood dust is no exception. Exposure has been linked with skin disorders, obstruction in the nose, a type of asthma and a rare type of nasal cancer. Hardwood dust has been assigned a maximum exposure limit (MEL) of 5 mg/m³ (8-hour time weighted average) in the UK because of its potential dangers. Softwood dust though not as suspect as the hardwood type can still cause problems but the suggested limit is still 5 mg/m³.

Fire/Explosions and Major Hazards

Every year there are reports of fires and explosions which severely damage or destroy premises or plant. Concentrations of small dust particles in the air can form a mixture that will explode if ignited. Often the explosions occur in dust extraction equipment and it is here that special precautions have to be taken. Secondary explosions can also follow the main explosion especially if dust deposits have accumulated in the workroom.

Wood dust will also burn readily if ignited. There have been numerous fires started due either to badly maintained motors, or electric sparks, or due to open wood burning stoves and cigarettes.

Preventative Measures

Of course many preventative measures are taken by both employers and employees Since WWM accidents account for a disproportionately high number of serious accidents compared to the total number occurring in the sector it is vital that action is taken. Safer working can be achieved by paying attention to the following.



There are many useful sources of information. Many references appear in the various databases and CD-ROMs which are published by SilverPlatter. OSH-ROM contains bibliographic databases - HSELINE from the UK Health and Safety Executive Information Services; CISDOC from the International Labour Office Health and Safety Centre in Geneva; and NIOSHTIC from the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Combined, these databases have a wealth of information on the woodworking industry.

OSH-CD - another SilverPlatter product contains the full text of many pieces of guidance and advice including the Health and Safety Executive's ones listed below.

The products mentioned in this article are available for a free trial. Why not try these for yourself and check out the contents of these exciting sources of information against your own workplace needs?



International Labour Office Safety in the use of chemicals at work. An ILO code of practice, Geneva, ILO 1993 ISBN 92 2 108006 4 (Available from the ILO , Millbank Towers, 21-24 Millbank London SW1P 4QP tel: +44 (0) 171 828 6401 Fax: +44 (0) 171 233 5925)

International Labour Office Safety and health in the use of chemicals at work: a training manual by Abu Bakar Che Man and David Gold. Geneva, ILO 1993 ISBN 92 2 106470 0

Health and Safety Executive Essentials of health and safety at work, UK, HSE Books 1994 ISBN 0 7176 0716 X (Note that this booklet also lists other useful reference material)

Royal Society of Chemistry Dictionary of substances and their effects, UK, RSC, 1992 - 1994 (7 volume dictionary) available Online.

Health and Safety Executive Step by step guide to COSHH (Control of substances hazardous to health) assessment, HS(G) 97. UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 011 88 6 379 7

Health and Safety Executive Getting to grips with manual handling problems, UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 07176 0622 8

Health and Safety Executive Manual handling: solutions you can handle, HS (G) 115. (A book of case studies on solutions to upper limb disorders and other ergonomic problems) UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 07176 0693 7

Health and Safety Executive Work related upper limb disorders - a guide to prevention, HS (G) 60. UK, HSE Books, Sudbury. ISBN 0118855565


Health and Safety Executive Woodworking National Industry Group, 14 Cardiff Road, Luton, Bedfordshire LU1 1PP, UK have a series of Woodworking Sheets which are constantly being updated and new ones issued. They cover all aspects of health and safety. Available free of charge from the above address.