The dust that is a by-product of sawing, sanding or machining softwood, hardwood and wood composites is a common cause of occupational asthma in woodworkers.
It is a pre-requisite that employers should follow the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 which state that hardwood and softwood dusts must not exceed the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) of 5mg/m3. This is the limit of the amount of dust that must be in the air averaged over the course of an eight hour working day. Dust that has settled contains the fine particles that are most likely to cause asthma so the COSHH stipulate that exposure to wood dust should be as low as is “reasonably practical”.
In the case of two woodworkers the HSE documented case studies showing the effects of wood dust upon employees and the resulting industrial disease that they developed.
The first incidence involved a joiner that had been encountering the symptoms of asthma for a year without having been diagnosed as suffering from asthma. The woodworking machinery that the employee operated was fitted with a dust extraction feature but it no longer worked due to insufficient maintenance. This meant that exposure to wood dust was not controlled and the man developed a debilitating case of occupational asthma which has led to the man having to make significant lifestyle changes.
After the HSE investigated to the work environment it was found that the machinery was faulty and it was not protecting the worker sufficiently. This led to an upgrade in the machinery thus helping to protect future workers for wood dust exposure.
The second woodworker case study from the HSE involved a joiner that was employed to make garden sheds in a factory. A main part of his job involved the sawing of western red cedar wood. After a few months of work he began to suffer health problems such as coughing and wheezing which cleared up during the weekend. Eventually, the weekend respite stopped and he began to suffer permanently. The employee saw his doctor and was referred to a chest specialist for a diagnosis. The results of which were that the man had developed occupational asthma as a consequence of the western red cedar dust.
The employer found the man work with an alternative type of wood and he is still employed at the company, however, if action was taken earlier the man would not have had to have suffered for several months.