Wood Dust Exposure Standard
L. Bean and Timothy
Wood dust is created when machines are used to cut or shape wood materials.
Industries that have a high risk of wood-dust exposure include sawmills,
dimension mills, furniture industries, cabinet makers, and carpenters.
In the past few years, negative health effects have been associated with
professions that shape, cut or work wood. Companies need to be aware of
the health effects of wood dust, OSHAs wood dust standard, and how the
standard may affect their production facility.
Until 1985, wood dust was regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA) under the Nuisance Dust Standard at 15 mg/m3 time
weight average (TWA). At that time, the Occupational Safety and Health
Review Commission determined that wood dust should not be regulated under
the Nuisance Dust Standard. The basis for this decision was that OSHA
had not set any permissible exposure limits (PELs) for wood dust.
Exposure to wood dust may cause external and internal health problems.
Adverse health effects associated with wood dust exposure includes dermatitis,
allergic respiratory effects, mucosal and non-allergic respiratory effects
Allergic respiratory problems can be caused by wood dust.
The chemicals in wood that are associated with allergic reactions are
generally found in the inner parts of the tree or heartwood.
A hypersensitivity reaction leading to asthma has been commonly reported
as a result of exposure to commonly used woods, including Western Red
Cedar, Cedar of Lebanon, Oak, Mahogany, and Redwood.
The asthmatic reaction is believed to be species-specific.
Dermatitis is also a common health hazard associated with exposure to
wood dust. Wood, usually as sawdust or splinters, may affect the skin
or mucous membranes by mechanical action or by chemical irritation and
sensitization. Irritant reactions appear to be more common among lumber
The main population of workers who suffer from dermatitis related problems
are those who work in secondary wood product manufacturing facilities;
although, cases have been documented in sawmill workers.
Cancers have been associated with wood dust exposure. The National Institute
for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) considers both hardwood and
softwood dust to be potentially carcinogenic to humans.
The three types of cancers associated with wood dust exposure are nasal
and sinus cavity cancer, lung and other cancers, and Hodgkin's disease.
The wood and cancer relationship was studied by Milham (1974) who conducted
a mortality study involving the AFL-CIO United Brotherhood of Carpenters
a d Joiners of America.
This study supports the hypothesis that wood contains carcinogenic agents.
The cancer mortality patterns found were:
1. Excess lung cancer in acoustical tile applicators and insulators.
2. Excess gastrointestinal cancer in pile drivers.
3. Excess leukemia Lymphoma group cancers in millwrights, mill workers,
and lumber and sawmill workers.
4. Excess lung and stomach cancer in construction workers with the greater
excesses found in workers in major urban areas.
Hodgkin's disease has also been associated with wood dust.
One study (Milham & Hesser, 1967) which examined 1,549 white males
terminally ill with this disease, showed an association between Hodgkin's
disease and wood dust exposure.
Another study (Spiers, 1969) concluded that men working in wood industries
in the eastern United States, due principally to the carcinogenicity of
pollen grains from eastern pine species, were at special risk for the
When the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, PELs
for about 400 different substances were incorporated into the Act and
became law. Until recently, OSHA had not established a specific PEL for
In 1985 OSHA was petitioned by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and
Joiners of America of the AFL-CIO to create a standard to protect workers
from wood dust levels deemed unsafe by the union.
The union's proposed standard for wood dust set exposure limits at 1
SUP> for hardwoods and 5 mg/m3 for softwoods. The Forest Industry
contended that the unions request would cost wood products manufacturers
up to $1.5 billion per year, and would ultimately reduce the number of
manufacturers in the wood industry. After reviewing the health evidence
presented, OSHAs finding was that a PEL of 1 mg/m3 for hardwoods was not
warranted. Through the efforts of 27 trade associations, known collectively
as the Inter-Industry Wood Dust Coordinating Committee, OSHA drafted a
rule that established standards that provided wood workers a leaner work
environment within cost bounds that most wood industries could afford.
The final rule for the air contaminants standards became effective March
1, 1989, and included revised PELs. OSHA issued a limit of 5 mg/m3, based
upon an 8-hour TWA, for work place exposure to all hardwoods and softwoods.
The rule also sets a 15-minute short term exposure limit (STEL) of 10
mg/m3 for hardwoods and softwoods. Western Red Cedar was placed in a category
by itself as an allergenic species. A TWA exposure limit of 2.5 mg/m3,
with no STEL, was established for Western Red cedar.
Compliance with the PELs was required after September 1, 1989, using "any
reasonable combination of engineering, administrative and respirator control
methods" (Dept. of Labor, 1989). The deadline for all operations
to achieve compliance using engineering controls is December 31, 1992.
STEPS TO MITIGATE THE PROBLEM
Engineering control methods, if economically feasible, should be implemented
before considering any other type of control. As of December 31, 1992,
administrative controls and personal protective equipment may no longer
be used as a means to comply with the new wood dust standard. Central
exhaust ventilation is the primary engineering control method. Central
exhaust systems are usually designed for specific operations in which
the wood dust is captured at the machines and conveyed through an o erhead
piping system to a collector. For indoor applications, these systems can
be designed with a heat exchanger that returns the heat or conditioned
air to the room. Dust collectors for individual machines are usually more
expensive and require more maintenance. Temporarily closing ducts that
service equipment not in operation increases air flow to the rest of the
hoods or vacuum devices. Adding a stronger fan to the system may be another
solution. A ventilation engineer can often recommend a number of modifications
to improve the performance of a specific ventilation system. Small changes
or modificati ns to an existing ventilation system will generally be less
costly than replacing the system.
Process or operator enclosure is another engineering control method. Operator
enclosure can be used where process equipment is operated from a remote
or semi-remote location. An example of this is a sawmill where the headrig
and resaw operators work effectively from an enclosure or booth. This
type of engineering control is not feasible in many situations. Process
enclosures are commonly used to reduce the noise levels of a piece of
machinery. A wooden box can be constructed around the piece o equipment
with insulation installed on the inside to dampen the noise level. This
type of enclosure can also be used to reduce wood dust levels. Caution
must be taken when using this type of modification because of the potential
for equipment overheating due to inadequate ventilation.
Administrative controls include good housekeeping procedures. The use
of compressed air for cleaning dust off equipment and other surfaces contributes
significantly to employee exposure to wood dust. The alternatives to the
use of compressed air include sweeping or vacuuming. For controlling wood
dust exposure, vacuuming is preferred. Due to cost, it may be difficult
to justify vacuuming as a substitute for compressed air; but, by experimenting
with different vacuum attachments, an industrial acuum can be made very
efficient. Vacuums can also be used as an alternative to sweeping and
using compressed air for removing dust from employee's clothing.
Proper maintenance; the proper combination of machine, tool, and work
piece; and proper machine operation can prevent unnecessary dust emissions.
Local exhaust ventilation and air cleaning systems should be designed
and maintained to prevent the accumulation of wood dust and the recirculating
of wood dust into the work place. The ventilation system should be inspected
periodically for effective performance. Another cause of poor dust collection
is the open sides of some machines or the opening at the cutterheads such
as those found on molders. In this case, air is drawn in from the sides
rather than over the cutterhead where dust can be effectively collected.
Also, when the cutting tools become dull, the radius of the cutting edge
increases, causing the cutting tool to rub and crush the wood fibers rather
than severing them cleanly. Smaller particles and more respirable dust
result from poor tool geometry. Good maintenance should be a priority
and may contribute to improved productivity as well as provide reductions
in dust levels. Other good practices include maintaining clean work spaces,
wearing protective clothing, and avoiding skin contact to help prevent
allergic reactions. Classified as an administrative control, rotating
jobs can reduce the amount of exposure by not allowing employees to work
a full eight-hour shift in a high-dust level area. However, the rotation
of workers is not considered a favorable safety and health procedure by
When effective engineering controls are not feasible or while they are
being instituted, appropriate respirators may be used. OSHA mandates that
a person may not be assigned the use of a respirator unless it has been
determined they are physically able to perform the work and use the equipment.
A local physician will determine what health and physical conditions are
pertinent. The respirator user's medical status must be reviewed periodically
(for instance, annually). Employers that assign res irators to employees
must follow procedures listed by OSHA in 29 CFR part 1910.134 for respirator
HOW TO FIND OUT IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM
There are a number of ways to check the work place for excessive airborne
wood dust. A visual check may immediately identify a problem. Examine
for dust collecting on equipment, clothes, face and hair and around the
breathing zone of workers. This will help determine where the dust is
created and how to mitigate the problem. Sweeping the floors may also
be causing unnecessary airborne wood dust. A clean work area during equipment
operation is a good indication that wood dust levels are below O HA standards.
However, the only way to be certain is to monitor the air for wood dust.
Air sampling records documenting compliance may protect a company in the
case of future liability claims. Air monitoring using battery powered
vacuum pumps with filter cassettes will provide factual information on
air quality. Air samples should be collected by a qualified person to
ensure correct sampling procedures and reliable results.
One potential problem may be the existing ventilation system not operating
at full potential. Check for broken or leaking ducts, clogged airways,
and full dust collection bins that may be restricting the air flow. The
system may be outdated or undersized due to changes or expansion of production
facilities. If this is the case, certain modifications may be made to
bring it to current standards (American National Standard Institute standard
Z33.1-1961). The ventilation system may be adequate, b t if improperly
fitted, may not be intercepting all dust being produced.
Something as straightforward as equipment layout may also be a source
of wood dust problems. The rotating blades of a planer may throw dust
and wood chips back toward the operator. In some situations, the back
edge of the saw blade of a circular saw can create dust that may be directed
by the gurd and projected towards the operator. A crosscut saw usually
creates a jet of dust that may be directed towards another work station
creating higher levels of dust at that station. Evaluate the dust ge eration
patterns of existing and planned equipment and arrange equipment in the
shop to reduce any problems.
Employers should take note of employee's complaints of shortness of breath
and whether employees have been missing work because of dust exposure.
Employee's past work histories may reveal exposures to wood dust and other
air contaminants in previous jobs. Past and present health records can
be compared to determine any changes in the respiratory health of workers
that might suggest the need for improvements.
Dept. of Labor. Jan. 1989. Federal Register, pp. 2528-2533. January.
Mazurkiewicz, Michael, M.S. and J.L. Festa, 1989. "Study Evaluates
Wood Dust Exposure in U.S. Plants" . Wood and Wood Products. p.158.
Meola, A. March. 1985. "Toxic effects of Wood Dust Exposure".
Milham, S. 1974. "Mortality Experience of the AFL-CIO United Brotherhood
of Carpenters and Joiners of America 1969-1970: Division of Field Studies
and Clinical Investigations". NIOSH Publication No. 74-129. NIOSH,
Salt Lake City, Utah.
Milham, S. and Hesser, J.E. 1967. "Hodgkin's Disease in Woodworkers".
Lancet, Vol 2: 136-137.
"National Forest Products Assn. and Inter-lndustry Wood Dust Coordinating
Committee Seminar Review". 1989. Wood and Wood Products. p. 166.
Spiers, P.S. 1969. "Hodgkin's Disease in Workers in the Wood Industry".
Public Health Reports, 84(5): 385-388.
This document is AEX-595.1, a series of the Agricultural Engineering Department,
Ohio State Universtiy Extenison, Columbus, Ohio 43210. Publication date:
December 1991. Funded in whole or in part from Grant Number U05/CCU506070-02,
"Cooperative Agreement Program for Agricultural Health Promotion
Systems," National institiute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Thomas L. Bean, Safety Leader; Timothy Lawrence, Extension Associate,
Safety, Ohio State University Extension, Columbus, Ohio 43210. Reviewed
by Dr. Curt Hassler, WVU; Dr. Wayne Maines, WVU; Dr. Thomas G. Carpenter,
OSU; and Dr. Randall K. Wood, OSU.
Info Click Here