In June 2019 the HSE announced the commencement of site inspections targeting UK businesses with a focus on dust control measures. Builders merchants with a sawmill are likely to be affected and need to be one step ahead by following the advice contained below.

Why is wood dust a problem?

Inhalation of wood dust can cause serious health problems. Softwood dust can cause asthma and hardwood dust can cause cancer, particularly of the nose. Settled dust contains the fine particles that are most likely to damage the lungs.

The Law

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 requires you to protect your workers from the hazards of wood dust. 

Both hardwood and softwood dusts have a Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) of 5mg/m3 which must not be exceeded. These are limits placed on the amount of dust in the air, averaged over an eight-hour working day. Furthermore, you should reduce exposure to wood dust to as low as ‘reasonably practicable’.

How to control dust in your workplace

Provide dust extraction (also known as local exhaust ventilation or LEV) at woodworking machines to capture and remove dust before it can spread. You are legally required to have the LEV examined by a competent person at least every 14 months and follow the extraction manufacturer’s guidance for maintenance requirements.

Never allow workers to sweep dust or use compressed air lines to blow dust as this creates inhalable airborne dust. Always use a suitable industrial vacuum cleaner that at least meets the Class M or H classification.

Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) face masks, may be needed for very dusty jobs such as sanding. Face masks need to be ‘face fitted’ to a cleanly shaven worker to ensure effective fit and should be suitable for the dust particulate size. 

RPE or disposable FFP2 or FFP3 dust masks should be provided for use when changing dust bags or housekeeping.

Provide clean welfare facilities for washing and changing as dust exposure can be increased through eating, drinking or smoking.


Educate workers about the risks from wood dust and the control measures required. They should know how to use the extraction properly and how to control the escape and spread of dust.

Training in usage, storage and when to change RPE or dust masks should also be provided to workers.

Health surveillance

Because inhalation of wood dust causes respiratory problems, any health effects must be picked up early using health surveillance.  

For most woods, low-level health surveillance in the form of a questionnaire will do. This should be completed at the start of employment, 6 weeks after and then annually thereafter. This would help detect whether a worker has a pre-existing health condition and whether dust control measures are failing and need bolstering. 

A higher level of health surveillance, including lung function testing, is needed for exposures to woods such as western red cedar which are a known asthmagen. An occupational health practitioner can help with this. 

What about Silica Dust?

Silica is a natural substance found in varying amounts in most rocks, sand and clay. Silica is also a major constituent of construction materials such as bricks, tiles, concrete and mortar.

Dust is generated from these materials during many common construction tasks. These include cutting, drilling, grinding and polishing. Some of this dust is fine enough to get deep into your lungs. The fine dust is known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and is too fine to see with normal lighting. It is commonly called silica or silica dust. Heavy and prolonged exposure to RCS can cause lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases.

Whilst construction workers are the main group that are vulnerable to silica dust exposure, many builders merchants may also need to consider the risk. Those with landscaping departments involved in cutting slabs etc, those with large amounts of loose aggregate tipping or those with concrete batching plants may find that silica dust presents a problem. RPE may be needed for these tasks. Further to this, most merchants will sell bags of cement or plaster and find split bags and spilt dust requires safe removal. As above, dry sweeping should be prevented and instead a vacuum cleaner with Class M or H filter used instead. 

Southalls builders merchants specialists can be contacted for further advice on wood and silica dust management.