Safety Meeting: Wood Dust Exposure. What is saw dust

Wood Dust Safety

I remember several years ago, while working on a project, I needed to cut a 4×4 using an 8″ miter saw. (This required me to cut the 4×4 halfway through and then flip it over and finish the cut.) Unfortunately, because of the small diameter and poor dust collection capabilities of the saw, this caused sawdust to be sprayed directly at me during the cut. Because I had a pretty bad cold at the time, I think I coughed or did some other involuntary reflex and inhaled deeply during one of the cuts, and got an absolute mouth-full/lung-full of dust.

My throat swelled up, and for a split second, I worried that something could be seriously wrong. “Should I go to the emergency room?” I thought. Fortunately, the swelling quickly subsided, but there was still some inflammation in my throat for almost a week afterward.

Wood Cutting Uncontrolled

Such a scare certainly got me thinking about wood dust safety. And since I have asthma and various allergies, this was doubly important.

Woodworking Dangers

I would venture to guess that in all, the biggest threat to a woodworker comes not in the form of bodily injury from a power tool, but from wood dust. Now to overlook or minimize the importance of hearing, eye, and overall physical safety when dealing with power tools, it is the small stuff—the tiny and easily overlooked wood dust particles—that can cause the most long-term damage.

So, just how does wood dust affect a woodworker?

Long-Term Damage: Forget about the large chips and visible sawdust: perhaps the most damaging element is the invisible fine dust (sometimes called “coarse inhalable particles” ranging from 2-10 microns). Basically, these tiny bits of sawdust float around the air and linger even after the tools have stopped running. These invisible particles get inhaled and cause tiny wounds and scarring to our lungs: each time this happens, it causes a very small amount of irreversible damage. The immediate effect is unnoticeable, but over long periods of time, this can result in significantly decreased lung capacity, and a number of other health issues.

Irritants: The most common way that wood dust affects a woodworker is by being an irritant. This simply means that it can irritate our skin, our eyes, and our lungs. This can mean reactions such as itching, sneezing, coughing, runny nose, rashes, and asthma-like breathing problems.

Sensitizers: Taking things a step beyond being just irritating, some woods can make us more and more sensitive upon each successive exposure. So even if you don’t experience any sort of allergic reaction to the wood or its dust upon first exposure, each time you breathe the dust or handle the wood. Sometimes the eventual reaction can be quite strong, resulting in rashes or boils, severe sinus or respiratory pain/inflammation, or a number of other conditions depending on the wood species.

Toxins: Not nearly as common, some wood is considered to be directly toxic. One example of this is Yew, which even according to ancient Roman knowledge, was capable of causing fatality in certain cases. (See the introduction of the article, Wood Allergies and Toxicity.

Carcinogens: If you look at the toxicity chart of wood species, you’ll notice that some species have been shown to cause NPC. That is, Nasopharyngeal carcinoma, or nasopharyngeal cancer.

To see a complete list of all the wood species, along with the most commonly reported reactions to their wood dust, see the Wood Toxicity and Allergen Chart.

safety, meeting, wood, dust, exposure

Now that we’ve seen the health detriments to inhaling and being exposed to wood dust, we’ll look at some of the ways that we can minimize risk and reduce the likelihood of having a serious health reaction.

Safety Measures

Different safety measures can be employed depending on what tool you’re using, and what procedure is being done on the wood. (For instance, resawing an 8″ tall board on a bandsaw will create a lot more dust than simply ripping it at 1″ thickness.) So, since there are a variety of operations that can be done, there are also a variety of protective measures.

I’ll start with the easiest and most common, the ones that can be used in any situation:

Dust mask: Available at a variety of hardware stores, these masks are just disposable cloth with an elastic Band. Some of the better ones have an exhalation valve on the front. They’re better than nothing, but the serious woodworker would probably do best to find a solution that is more efficient and form-fitting than these disposable products.
Respirator: A step up from a simple dust mask is a respirator. These filter airborne particles with fairly good efficiency, and have replaceable filter pad(s) that can be swapped out when they get clogged, saving money in the long run.One advantage that these units have over their disposable counterparts is that they are made of flexible rubber, which forms a much better seal than cloth/paper masks. There are also larger models and/or optional filter pads that use charcoal to also filter out solvents and other chemicals. These cartridge respirators are a great choice when applying wood finishes in enclosed areas, especially during winter months when ventilation can be difficult.
Powered Respirators: Taking this personal protection one step further, there are also powered respirators which enclose your entire head and actively pump fresh air in/out of the mask. These units offer the ultimate in wood dust protection, and are well-suited for those with extreme wood allergies.
Air filter: Another all-around useful item to have in your shop is an air filter. These are typically ceiling-mounted units that run while you are working in your shop, and collect airborne dust particles with minimal intrusion or hassle. Air filters most commonly will use furnace filters for the pre-filter, with an array of felt-like bag filters on the inside. Depending on how fine of a dust you’d like to filter, you can buy HEPA furnace filters for the pre-filter (though this can slow down the overall CFM through the filter), or washable/reusable filters, or even charcoal filters to remove organic vapor from the air.Yet despite the versatility and convenience of using an air filter, it certainly shouldn’t be relied upon as a woodworker’s only line of defense against wood dust. It should instead be viewed as a backup: helping in the background while you minimize your exposure to dust in the first place.
Air exhaust: Despite all of helpfulness of the previous items, one of the very best ways you can protect yourself from wood dust is to blow it out of your shop. Just because you can’t see any dust doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t any particles left in the air. You may think the coast is clear, and take off your dust mask, but there’s probably a host of very fine wood particles still floating around in the air: soon to be in your lungs.This is where an exhaust fan can come in handy. Instead of using so many resources, expensive filters, masks, etc., sometimes the very best thing is to get a breath of fresh air, and exhaust the old, dusty, polluted air out of your shop.

Tool/Job-Specific Safety Measures

Dust collector: A staple tool in every serious wood shop. They usually use 4″ dust collection hose, and will filter large chips and dust from a variety of woodworking machines.The beauty of a dust collector is that they are designed to create a lot of CFMs of suction, and unlike shop vacs which use a small internal filter, dust collectors use a giant bag (or a canister) and almost never lose any suction with continued use. You can also outfit your dust collector with an upper felt bag to increase the efficiency of collecting smaller dust particles: a feature that is very helpful when using a collector on a drum sander which creates finer dust.
Cyclone Separator: Another option on the opposite side of the spectrum, (that is, if you are creating a lot of large wood chips/shavings as from a planer or jointer), is to use a cyclone separator with your dust collector. This is essentially a giant vortex-shaped pre-filter piece that allows larger chunks of wood to drop and fall into a trash can or other large container: prolonging the life of the dust collector’s bag and greatly reducing the frequency that you have to empty it. Bill Pentz has written and studied wood dust safety and cyclone dust collectors extensively, and is his website is a recommended resource for those wanting a thorough defense against wood dust. Common tools that are typically used with a dust collector include: tablesaw, jointer, planer, downdraft table, drum sander, and bandsaw. As you can see, most shops would be quite messy if a dust collector wasn’t in regular use!
Downdraft table: This is simply a specialized table/platform where sanding or other shaping operations can be done almost dust-free. The table is full of holes or slots, and a vacuum or dust collector is attached, creating a continuous downward suction on the table. There are also stand-alone downdraft tables that have a built-in motor which can be used for industrial types of situations.
Vacuum/direct dust extraction: The last option is to connect a vacuum to a specific tool. This is usually done with a hose adapter of some sort, and the vacuum is only switched on when the tool is running. Some vacs have an auto-on feature to work with a sander or other small tool to kick on when the tool is switch on. In most instances, the tool is actually plugged directly into the vacuum.One advantage to this method is that it can be very precise, so that even though only a moderate amount of suction is created with the vac, it is in just the right place for optimum dust extraction. Vacuums are typically used with miter saws, sanders, and other small handheld tools that have a dust port. If you don’t have an auto-start vacuum, one useful tool that can perform the same function is called the i-Socket. What this small device does is plug into any standard electrical outlet, and has two plug-in sockets: one for a tool, and another for the vacuum. It then will sense when the tool is turned on, and automatically turn on the vacuum as well. It also leaves the vacuum on for a few seconds after the tool has been switched off to help clear any lingering dust from the hose.

Are you an aspiring wood nerd?

The poster, Worldwide Woods, Ranked by Hardness, should be required reading for anyone enrolled in the school of wood nerdery. I have amassed over 500 wood species on a single poster, arranged into eight major geographic regions, with each wood sorted and ranked according to its Janka hardness. Each wood has been meticulously documented and photographed, listed with its Janka hardness value (in lbf) and geographic and global hardness rankings. Consider this: the venerable Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sits at only #33 in North America and #278 worldwide for hardness! Aspiring wood nerds be advised: your syllabus may be calling for Worldwide Woods as part of your next assignment!

Safety Meeting: Wood Dust Exposure

W ood dust is not just dust. It can lead to serious health problems if you are exposed to it. Wood dust is tiny particles of wood produced during the processing and handling of wood, chipboard, and/or hardboard. Exposure to wood dust occurs in many industries, including logging and sawmill operations, furniture and paper manufacturing, and construction of residential and commercial buildings. Workers might be exposed when wood is sawed, chipped, routed, or sanded.

What your employees need to know about wood dust

Repeated exposures to wood dust can lead to allergic reactions, dermatitis, eye irritation, asthma, nasal dryness and obstruction, and frequent headaches. The natural chemicals in the wood that appear to be associated with allergic reactions are found in the inner parts of the tree or heartwood. Wood may also contain biological contaminants such as molds and fungi, which often grow on the bark of the tree.

In addition, wood may be treated with arsenic, chromium, or other chemical preservatives. Your workers are then at risk of breathing in the chemical preservatives as well as the dust.

Wood dust will also burn easily if ignited. Ignition sources include overheated motors or sparks. Concentrations of small dust particles in the air can form a mixture that will explode if ignited. This type of situation can also occur in dust collection equipment.

Wood dust on the floor makes the floor slippery, increasing the risk of a slip, trip, or fall injury. Vision can be impaired by airborne dust generated during wood processing. Wood dust is classified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a hazardous chemical and is subject to the Hazard Communication Standard.

What your employees need to do to minimize wood dust exposure

It’s important to keep the dust from accumulating at the workplace. One way to keep the workplace clean is to use a local exhaust system. This device helps pull the dust out of the air as it’s generated, reducing your employees’ risk of breathing it in or it piling up on the floor and other surfaces.

Employees should also take the time to regularly clean the work area to prevent dust from accumulating.

  • Use a vacuum with a high-efficiency air (HEPA) filter to clean work surfaces and the floor. Do not use a broom or compressed air, as these can kick dust into the air.
  • Use wet methods where appropriate by applying water at flow rates sufficient to reduce the release of visible dust.
  • Make sure dust control equipment is properly maintained.

Employees can protect themselves further by using respiratory protection rated N95 or higher. Employers must provide this protection when requested by an employee. If conditions require the use of respirators, a full respiratory program should be implemented.

What to cover at your safety meeting on wood dust exposure

Discuss with your employees how exposure to wood dust affects their health both short term and long term. Make sure they understand their role in helping to mitigate the exposure. Training should also include:

  • How to use a local exhaust system
  • How to use the wet method
  • How to use the vacuum cleaner with the HEPA filter
  • How to maintain the equipment and properly discard the dust collected
  • How to request and correctly use respiratory protection

Wood dust isn’t just dust, it’s dangerous dust. Make sure your employees have the equipment they need and know how to use it to help minimize their risks that come with dust particles flying through the air.

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Wood Chunks vs Wood Sawdust: Which Is Better for Smoking?

Smoking foods is actually an old time tradition that was once used mainly to preserve meats. Through various techniques smoking has expanded into a method of adding rich, penetrating smoke flavor to various foods. This process can be done using a food smoker nowadays, but the concept remains the same. Let’s settle the question of “Wood Chunks vs Wood Sawdust: Which Is Better for Smoking?” once and for all! A key component when smoking is the form of wood being used. Depending on what foods you are smoking and the type of equipment you are working with, it’s important to know the distinctions between the choices of wood.

Wood Chunks

Running hardwood through a shredder breaks the wood into consistently sized pieces. These wood pieces or “chips” provide a burst of natural smoke flavor to foods and come in a variety of flavors. Wood chips burn faster than sawdust or pellets. Soaking wood chips in water for about 30 minutes generates steam that adds moisture and heat to the smoking process. This method also prolongs burning time. The key with wood chips is to deny the wood of oxygen so it smoulders and smokes. Burnt wood chips will generate a bitter smoke. May Be Used In:

  • Smoke houses
  • Electric, gas charcoal grills
  • Smoke boxes

Although wood chunks are one of the most popular options, they might add acidity as you can’t control its temperature and you’ll have no control over the amount of smoke you’ll have during your preparation.


Sawdust is raw material used for smoking. It burns more slowly than wood chips, but faster than wood pellets. Sawdust is used for hot or cold smoking, which produces a nice, even smoke. However, sawdust offers less heat than chips or pellets. They are replenished fairly often and often used for smoking sausage, fish and various meat cuts.

Pro tip: Make sure the sawdust is dry before using.

Extra Pro Tip: Do not use repurposed or reused wood to produce sawdust for food smoking. Only use natural wood that you can track the source of. This is how you can guarantee avoiding unwanted chemicals. (We only use full trees, never reused wood for bisquettes to guarantee they don’t have harmful chemicals).

Keep in the mind that the type of wood you choose may depend on the model smoker and rate of burn you require in order to get the intensity of smoke you want to achieve. You also have a choice flavors ranging from light woods containing fruit essence, to dark woods that provide a more rich smoke flavor. If you are less experienced, be sure to do some research and preparation before beginning the smoking process.

How to Tell the Difference Between Wood Chips and Chunks

Pro tip: Wood chips are the same as sawdust.

Breathing in Dust: What Happens to Your Lungs?

Wood chunks and chips both usually come from hardwood trees, and people use both to smoke meats and veggies. The main difference is size, which makes it very easy to distinguish between wood chips and wood chunks.

Wood chips are very thin, with most chips measuring less than 0.25 inches thick. In comparison, wood chunks from Cutting Edge Firewood can measure up to 4 inches thick. Wood chips are essentially wood thin shavings, whereas wood chunks are thicker blocks of wood. By inspecting the thickness, you should be able to tell whether a piece of smoking wood is a wood chip or wood chunk.

Why you should use Bradley Bisquettes

Our Bisquettes are the secret to the Bradley Smoker. The bisquettes have a unique design burning at consistent temperatures and for controlled periods of time. They consist of precise quantities of hardwood chips, coupled with controlled pressures and wood densities.

Perfect, Consistent Results Every Time

Using the Bradley Bisquettes, you don’t have to worry about your chips burning too hot for too long, and giving your food an off-taste. They’ll give you perfect results! The same results that Bradley users have been enjoying for years.

Part of the excitement of food smoking is experimenting with different hardwoods. Try out till you find that perfect woody flavour for your food.

The Bradley Flavour Bisquettes use hardwood chippings bound together with precise quantities at controlled pressures and densities, the flavour of the smoke determined by the variety of wood burnt.

For instance, alder and maple give a rich and distinct flavour commonly used with seafood, hams and bacon. Apple and cherry impart a sweeter, milder smoke flavour, commonly used with poultry and wild game meat.

Find the best quality smoking bisquettes by visiting our website today.

The best food deserves the best flavor!

Wood Dust Exposure and Lung Cancer Risk

Sanja Jelic, MD, is board-certified in sleep medicine, critical care medicine, pulmonary disease, and internal medicine.

Exposure to wood dust is associated with lung cancer, but not all exposures are the same. While exposure on the job could be a problem, a hobby working with wood gives you a relatively low risk of cancer.

Hard woods from deciduous trees confer more risk than soft woods from evergreens, and geographic location may factor in as well. While wood dust is more strongly associated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, people who are exposed to on-the-job wood dust or who work in occupations associated with the dust have elevated rates of lung cancer. Learn more about wood dust exposure, the current safety limits, and other medical conditions that are associated with wood dust exposure.

Wood Dust and Lung Cancer

Wood dust is one of the oldest occupational exposures known to man, and it’s still very important today for people who work with cabinetry or in mills.

Occupational Risk and Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a multifactorial disease with several risk factors. For example, asbestos exposure and smoking can cause lung cancer, and having both risks together further increases the likelihood of developing lung cancer.

So if you already have one or more risk factors for lung cancer, it makes sense to avoid wood dust exposure, which might add to your risk.

Wood Dust as a Carcinogen

Wood dust is considered a Group I carcinogen, a substance known to cause cancer in humans. Wood dust is made up of a conglomeration of different substances derived from hardwood or softwood trees.

Hard Woods vs. Soft Woods

Several of the studies on wood dust and lung cancer distinguish between softwood dust and hardwood dust, with hardwood dust being significantly more likely to cause cancer.

But what constitutes hardwood and what are softwoods?

  • Hardwoods are deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the fall. Wood from some hardwood trees is actually very soft, such as birch and balsa.
  • Softwoods are coniferous trees that do not lose their leaves but remain green year-round (evergreens).

Research on Wood Dust and Cancer

Many studies have looked at the relationship between wood dust and cancer. A 2015 review of 70 studies found that the strongest link between wood dust and cancer is the risk of nasal adenocarcinoma (a head and neck cancer). Overall, it was found that there is low to moderate evidence that wood dust can lead to lung cancer as well.

  • A different 2015 review of 10 studies found a significantly increased risk of lung cancer with wood dust exposure; those who were exposed to wood dust were at least 20% more likely to develop the disease, and those who worked in wood dust-associated occupations had a 15% greater risk. In contrast, a slightly reduced risk of lung cancer was noted in people in Nordic countries who were exposed to primarily softwood dust. The authors concluded that the risk may be dependent on geographic location and the type of wood dust exposure.
  • Another study out of Canada found the risk of lung cancer related to wood dust exposure was increased by approximately around 40%. The most common occupations linked with exposure were construction work, timber, and furniture making. An important point in this study is that substantial exposure over a lengthy period of time was necessary to increase cancer risk, and there was little risk among those whose cumulative exposure was not substantial. This may be of some reassurance to those who enjoy woodworking as a hobby.

Other Related Medical Conditions

Wood dust has long been known to lead to medical conditions other than cancer. These include:

Skin Rashes (Dermatitis)

Skin rashes related to wood dust are common and have been found with exposure to dust from over 300 different types of trees. The rashes, itching, and redness can arise due to skin irritation or from allergic reactions.

Respiratory Allergies

Allergic reactions such as allergic asthma are common with wood dust exposure. The best-known reaction is a reaction to red cedar, to which 5% of workers are allergic. Wood dust is considered one of the top 10 causes of occupational asthma in the U.K.

Respiratory Symptoms Unrelated to Allergies

Nasal symptoms, such as itching, dryness, coughing, wheezing, and repeated episodes of sinusitis are linked to wood dust exposure.

Decreased Lung Function

Though noted more with softwoods, exposure to wood dust may result in decreased pulmonary function. In addition, exposure to wood dust can disrupt the cilia, the small hair-like structures in the respiratory tree that remove inhaled toxins from the airways.

Recommended Limits for Exposure

OSHA recommends an eight-hour exposure limit of 5 mg/m3 for hard wood and soft wood.

An exception is red cedar wood dust, for which the eight-hour limit is 2.5 mg/m3 due to its potential to cause allergic reactions.

Occupations at Risk

Occupations that result in high wood dust exposure include:

  • Carpenters
  • Pulp and paper mill workers
  • Furniture workers
  • Cabinetmakers
  • Sawmill workers
  • Sander operators, press operators, and lithe operators

Using machinery to manipulate wood results in the highest exposure. This includes chipping, sanding, drilling, and shaping.

Hazards and Precautions

In addition to following the limits for eight-hour exposure to wood dust, there are many things that employers and employees can do to minimize exposure.

  • Consider industrial ventilation systems and high-efficiency HEPA filters in the workplace
  • Wearing a respirator (masks provide little if any protection and could give false assurance that you are not at risk)
  • Wet clean up is preferred to dry clean up, and air blowers should never be used to clean up wood dust
  • Keep machine parts sharp and in good repair, as dull blades can result in more wood dust
  • Keep in mind that people who clean and maintain woodworking equipment are also at risk

Check out OSHA’s information covering potential hazards and possible solutions with regard to on-the-job wood dust exposure to learn about ways to reduce the amount of wood dust you inhale at work.

Other Potential Exposures in Wood Working

It’s important to note that people who work with wood can also have exposure to other toxic substances. Chemicals such as glue and varnishes can also be a risk factor for cancer.

Make sure to read the Material Data Safety Sheets on all substances you are exposed to at work.

What About Your Woodworking Hobby?

In studies thus far, exposure to wood dust as a hobby was not found to be linked with lung cancer. Even with occupational exposure, research suggests that the exposure needed to be “cumulative and substantial” to increase the risk of cancer.

That said, always practice good ventilation while working with wood and with any chemicals. Always read labels and follow the recommendations. If a label recommends using gloves or a mask, heed those instructions.

A Word From Verywell

It can be discouraging as you consider cancer risks with specific exposures. You may catch yourself saying, “Doesn’t everything cause cancer?” Yet, learning about these risks, and taking action, doesn’t mean that you need to become a fanatic. There are often very simple measures you can take to reduce your risk.

Employers now have guidelines that specify the quantity and amount of time that a person may be exposed to wood dust without raising the risk of cancer. That said, it is important for employees to be aware of these guidelines and follow them, and to speak up if appropriate attention to these limits is not followed in their place of work.

Whether or not you are exposed to wood dust, take the time to check out these tips for lowering your risk of lung cancer. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths for both men and women and lung cancer in never-smokers is the 6th leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  • Alonso-Sardon, M., Chamorro, A., Hernandez-Garcia, I. et al. Association Between Occupational Exposure to Wood Dust and Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS One. 2015. 10(7):e0133024.
  • Hancock, D., Langley, M., Chia, K., Woodman, R., and E. Shanahan. Wood Dust Exposure and Lung Cancer Risk: A Meta-Analysis. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2015. 72(12):889-98.
  • Vallieres, E., Pintos, J., Parent, M., and J. Siemiatycki. Occupational Exposure to Wood Dust and Risk of Lung Cancer in Two Population-Based Case-Control Studies in Montreal, Canada. Environmental Health. 2015. 14:1.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Wood Dust. Updated 11/29/18.
  • Holm, S., and J. Festa. A Review of Wood Dust Longitudinal Health Studies: Implications for an Occupational Limit Value. Dose Response. 2019.
  • Shankar, A., Dubey, A., Saini, D. et al. Environmental and Occupational Determinants of Lung Cancer. Translational Lung Cancer Research. 2019. 8(Suppl 1):S31-S49.

By Lynne Eldridge, MD Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of “Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time.”