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Responding to regulation changes for wood dust exposure

18 October 2020

New research is aimed at preparing the forest and wood products industry to best respond to potential revised regulations around wood dust exposure levels.

Operations across the timber supply chain, including sanding, sawing, cross cutting and drilling, all have the potential to create wood dust. In response to research strongly associating wood dust in the workplace with health issues like cancer, occupational asthma and atopy (or a tendency to develop allergic diseases), Australian regulations exist to keep exposure to wood dust in the workplace at a safe level.

“In recent times, Safe Work Australia has made changes to similar regulations around crystalline silica dust and coal dust,” said Dr Roger Meder, Principal at Meder Consulting, which undertook the recent FWPA-commissioned research. “It is inevitable therefore, that wood dust exposure levels will be reviewed in the near future, meaning changes to regulations may be on the way.”

One important element of the project was an extensive literature review, which focused on current regulations around the world, and how Australia compares. There is particular interest in the distinctions between regulations relating to hardwood and softwood dust.

“Traditionally, exposure to hardwood dust in the air has been considered more harmful than softwood dust,” explained Meder. “Surprisingly, the literature review did not reflect this widely-held assumption. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest there is actually little difference between the harmful effects of hardwood and softwood dust.

“Attention should instead be paid to the particle size of the dust, regardless of whether it has originated from hardwood or softwood, as science suggests a small amount of fine dust is more harmful than a greater amount of dust containing larger particles.

“This is likely due to the potential for smaller, respirable dust particles to penetrate deeper into the lungs, and even make their ways into the bloodstream. Larger particles meanwhile, tend to get trapped in the nasal cavity, meaning they have less potential to cause long-term respiratory harm, although nasal cancers and work-related asthma may result.

“Unsurprisingly, sanding operations tend to produce both the greatest volume of dust, and also dust with the smallest sized particles. Exposure levels recorded for sander operators often exceed the regulated occupational exposure level (OEL) by several times.”

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Source: FWPA Forwood

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