Woodworking and health


A number of health risks exist within the woodworking industry. This page will look at COSHH, wood dust, paint spraying, noise and the steps that you can take to reduce the risks.

Control of substances that are hazardous to your health (COSHH) regulations

Wood dust, resins used in some particle boards, adhesives, paint strippers, two-pack polyurethane paints and varnishes, stains and wood preservatives are examples of substances used in the woodworking industry which may be hazardous to people's health. Employees can breathe in or swallow these hazardous substances for example if they get onto food or they can be absorbed through the skin through contact with the substance. The main health risks are occupational asthma and dermatitis.

As an employer you should identify all the substances in your workplace such as dust, liquids or fumes and assess them to see if they could make your employees ill. Hazardous substances are normally labelled with pictograms to alert users to a particular hazard. You may find information that can help you on the product safety data sheet. You can get safety data sheets from your supplier and you will need to keep on file a data sheet for every hazardous substance that you use. Then look at the work your employees may do where they may be exposed to the hazardous substances. You should consider the following measures (they are listed below in order of priority):

1. Get rid of the hazardous substance

You should:

  • consider whether you can stop using the hazardous substance
  • consider changing the process or activity so that you do not need to use the hazardous substance or it is not produced

2. Replace the hazardous substance

You should:

  • replace it with a safer material or
  • if you must still use the hazardous substance, see if you can use it in a safer form, for example as a pellet instead of a powder

3. Control the hazardous substance

You must keep the risk as low as possible of employees being exposed to the hazardous substance. You can control the risk of exposure to the hazardous substance by doing the following, in order of priority.

Engineering controls

  • changing the manufacturing process - for example, use processes which reduce, as far as possible, the amount of hazardous substance that you use or produce
  • put equipment in a room by itself
  • enclose the hazardous substance - use equipment that totally encloses the way hazardous substances are used or produced, for example, use spray booths when spraying varnishes
  • use ventilation and extraction - use equipment, such as local exhaust ventilation (LEV), to remove wood dust or fumes at the point where they are first produced. Local exhaust ventilation systems must be thoroughly examined and tested at least once every 14 months by a qualified and experienced person, such as an engineer. They must record the results of the examination and you must correct any faults as soon as possible

Working practices

Keep the number of employees who come into contact with the hazardous substances as low as possible and keep the length of time they have to work with the hazardous substances as short as possible. You may need to monitor employees' health.

Information and training

Give your employees enough information, instructions and training on working with the hazardous substance and the systems of work they should use to stay safe.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

If there is still some risk of exposure after you have introduced all other measures, then make sure that you provide your employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, respirators such as air-fed masks and protective clothing and shoes. You should only use PPE as a last resort and never in place of other control measures. Show your employees how to use, store and care for their PPE.

Paint spraying

Many paints, varnishes, stains and thinners used in the woodworking industry give off vapours which are easily ignited and are also hazardous to health.

  • store highly flammable liquids in a fire-resistant store - the store should be well-ventilated, secure, leak-proof and outside if possible (small quantities of flammable liquids may be stored inside in a leak-proof, secure and well-ventilated fire-resistant cabinet)
  • spray only in mechanically-ventilated booths
  • make sure that all potential ignition sources (for example, naked flames, unprotected light fittings and powered hand tools) are not used in the spray area
  • do not smoke near flammable liquids
  • to contain liquids and prevent spills when pouring small quantities, put a tray underneath the container or use workbenches with a raised edge
  • soak up any spills with absorbent material and get rid of it safely
  • make sure that employees wear appropriate personal protective equipment, such as breathing masks, gloves, eye protection and overalls

Wood dust

Wood dust is made up of tiny particles of wood produced when wood, chipboard, hardboard and other forms of boards are processed and handled. Wood dust will burn easily if it is set on fire. It can destroy or seriously damage buildings and machinery if it causes a fire or an explosion.

Fires can be started by badly maintained heating units, overheated electric motors and sparks from cigarettes or open wood burning stoves. Concentrations of small particles of wood dust in the air can form a mixture that will explode if set on fire. Such mixtures are usually found in dust-extraction equipment. This equipment can be destroyed unless you take special measures to prevent an explosion. Wood dust on the floor of a workshop can also create a serious risk of slipping. Regular contact with wood dust can cause skin problems such as dermatitis. Breathing in wood dust can block your nose and can cause rhinitis, asthma and a form of nasal cancer.

Follow the simple steps below to help prevent your employees' health or your building from being damaged by wood dust:

  • where possible, use processes or methods of work that produce as little dust as possible
  • provide equipment for processes which produce dust to stop the dust entering the workroom, for example, local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems at woodworking machines
  • make sure that machinery and equipment, including local exhaust ventilation systems, are properly maintained
  • check that equipment for controlling dust includes explosion precautions
  • clean around machines, walls, ceilings, ledges and other surfaces in workrooms to prevent dust building up - use suitable vacuum-cleaning equipment fitted with a HEPA (high efficiency particle attenuation) filter, do not use compressed airlines or dry brushing as this creates dust clouds and spreads the dust around
  • where measures taken to control airborne dust are not effective, employees should wear suitable protective breathing equipment to at least FFP3 standard
  • provide employees with other protective equipment, such as eye protection, overalls and gloves, where necessary
  • provide good washing facilities and encourage a high level of personal hygiene

For more information on controlling exposure to wood dusts and protecting worker health you can access the Woodworking series (WD) of advice sheets designed to help employers and the self-employed to comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003:


Some of the noisiest working environments are found in the woodworking industry. Over time, very loud noise from machinery in a workshop can seriously damage your hearing. Very loud noise can also make talking to other people difficult and you may not hear warning noises (for example, fire alarms and reversing vehicles).

As a simple guide, you will probably need to do something about noise levels in the workplace if your employees have to raise their voices to carry out a normal conversation when they are about two metres apart.

For more information, read 'Reducing noise at woodworking machines' woodworking information sheet (WIS) number 13:


Control of wood dust

Local exhaust ventilation (LEV) - Extractors

Manual handling


Key legislation

Please note that this link is to the original legislation, visitors should verify for themselves whether legislation is in force or whether it has been amended or repealed by subsequent legislation.