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Wood dust and formaldehyde are classified as Group 1 carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

When wood products are worked on, dust and formaldehyde are released into the air. Prolonged exposure and inhalation of these products may cause cancer of the nasal cavity, sinuses and nasopharynx, as well as leukaemia.

It is estimated that around 16% of cancers of the nose and nasal sinuses in men and 2% in women could be due to exposure to wood dust.1



What is wood dust?

Wood dust is produced via woodworking activities including the manufacture of wood products, machine operations, and hand or machine sanding.

Wood dust that has settled can be released back into the air when disturbed from activities such as removing dust from furniture, maintenance activities, or when cleaning equipment or sweeping floors.



What is formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a colourless, strong-smelling gas that is used in the production of glues for the manufacturing of pressed wood products. Pressed wood products include plywood, particleboard, and medium density fibreboard (MDF), commonly used for panelling, cabinets, shelving, and furniture. These products are made from breaking down softwood or hardwood into wood fibres that are then glued together with a formaldehyde-based resin.

Formaldehyde can be released as a vapour, and can also be absorbed by dust particles in the air.

Occupational Cancer Risk Series - Wood products
Download the PDF

Work and exposure to wood products

In 2010, it was reported that 14% of Australian workers (i.e. machinery operators, drivers, technicians, trades workers, labourers) were exposed to wood and related dust, and 13% were exposed to industrial and medical cases and fumes (formaldehyde included).2 

Wood dust exposure is highest amongst woodworking machine operators, cabinet makers, furniture finishers, carpenters and workers employed in the manufacture of wood products. You may be exposed to wood dust and formaldehyde if your work involves cutting, sawing, routing, turning, sanding, or milling wood or pressed wood products.



Effective controls

All Australian workplaces must follow work health and safety laws. These vary slightly between states and territories, but the duty of care for employers and responsibilities of workers across Australia is similar:

  • employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers at their workplace
  • workers must take care of their own health and safety
  • workers must not negatively affect the health and safety of other people
  • workers must follow any reasonable instruction and workplace health and safety policies.

Refer to Controlling wood dust hazards at work for more information on how you can control wood dust and formaldehyde hazards.

Eliminate or reduce exposure to hazards by following the risk management process and using the hierarchy of control (Figure 1). Workers should always be involved in the process to correctly identify hazards and control measures that suit the workplace and task. If suitable control measures are not in place, anyone working with wood products may have an increased risk of developing cancer.

The hierarchy of risk control diagram

Figure 1: The hierarchy of risk control

Workers should be given information and training on:

  • control measures and how to use them (summarised in Table 3, and the Health and Safety Executive (UK) also have specific job task fact sheets)
  • possible health effects of wood dust and formaldehyde exposure.
  • health surveillance.



Air monitoring 

Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulation 50 states air monitoring must be conducted if there is a possible risk to health or if there is potential of exceeding the exposure limit. This should be conducted by a suitable qualified occupational hygienist. However, exposure levels in settings like construction sites are always changing and air sampling alone is not enough.

Table 1: The current Australian occupational exposure standard

Carcinogen8 hr TWA  15 mins STEL 
Hardwood 1 mg/m 3
Softwood 5 mg/m 3 10 mg/m 3
Formaldehyde 1 ppm or 1.2 mg/m 3 2 ppm or 2.5 mg/m 3

*TWA (Time weighted average); STEL (Short term exposure limit)



How do I reduce my cancer risk?

Prevent wood dust and formaldehyde exposure by keeping the dust and gas out of the air.

If you think you have been exposed to a cancer-causing agent, it’s important you speak with your doctor. To find out what you can do to create a workplace that supports healthy choices to help reduce cancer risk, contact Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Table 2: Summary of exposure control measures for working with wood

ACTIVITYCONTROL
Construction, planning and design  - Order the right size of wood products or have them cut to size off-site. 
- Only Australian-made MDF products labelled low formaldehyde emission (LFE), should be used.
- A Safety Data Sheet should be requested before purchasing any pressed wood products.
- Enclose plant or keep workers away from dusty areas.
- Use fewer toxic materials and substances (i.e. avoid high risk woods and solvent-free products).
- Hardwood dust is finer and more easily inhaled than softwood dust; substitute if possible.
- Where possible, operate tools at lower power settings to minimise dust production.
Correct equipment - Use work processes that produce minimum dust (i.e. using a plane rather than a sander).
- Ensure tools have dust suppression features Vehicles and machinery should have a dust collection system and an air-conditioned cab with a filtered air supply
- Filters should be cleaned and maintained regularly.
Workshop ventilation  Work areas should be well ventilated. Have enclosures of hoods and local exhaust ventilation (LEV) to remove dust at the point it’s produced.
Ensure tools have on-tool extractionUse  LEV that fits directly onto hand-held machines. They should be fitted with dust bags and used in well ventilated areas. This is the most effective way of controlling dust. 
Use water suppression when possible Water suppression should be used whenever possible; especially when LEV is not suitable. Water should be used through non-electric tools to wet dust down at the point of dust generation. Wetting the material is not enough. Ensure equipment and work areas are cleaned regularly with water. 
Clean up correctlyDO NOT ‘clean up’ with compressed air or by dry sweeping. Use roller/brush application of coatings rather than spraying. Use an H or M class industrial HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter vacuum, which should be cleaned and maintained regularly.
Reduce exposure using administrative controlsEnsure good general ventilation to the work area. Display warning signs if tasks create wood dust and/or formaldehyde. Rotate staff to limit the time they are exposed. Locate wood product work outdoors, away from other workers.
Know how to use your respiratory protective equipment (RPE) correctly- No RPE can prevent all dust from being breathed in. So, RPE should be used in combination with other controls.
- RPE cannot protect you if it doesn’t fit properly. Employers should have workers face fit tested and trained in their use and maintenance. This is even more important if you have facial hair.
- It is important to choose the right RPE for the job; Use the AS/NZS 1715/1716 standards or watch this HSE video for guidance on the selection and use of RPE. 
- Use P1 or P2 replaceable filters or disposable half face-piece respirators when machining products. 
- FFP3 (protection level) is advisable if you are exposed to high levels of dust. Using an organic vapour filter will also provide protection against any formaldehyde vapours that are present.
Wear the correct personal protective equipment (PPE)If possible, wear disposable clothing at work. Before you leave work, shower and change into clean clothes. Do not take your dusty clothes home to wash.
Quit smokingInhalation of airborne particles from other sources in the work environment, including those from cigarette smoke, may reduce the lung’s ability to clear dust, and increase the risk of contracting respiratory diseases associated with wood dust exposure. 



Where can I get reliable information?

Occupational Cancer Risk Series - Wood products
Download the PDF
Understanding Lung Cancer Booklet
Download the PDF

Sources

1. Fritschi L. & Driscoll, T. Cancer due to occupation in Australia. Aust N Z J Public Health 2006;30(3):213-219

2. de Crespigny, F. National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance - Exposure to dust, gases, vapours, smoke and fumes and the provision of controls for these airborne hazards in Australian workplaces, 2010. Safe Work Australia


Find out more about workplace cancers