How to Avoid Health and Safety Risks When Working with Wood

Woodworking involves many dimensions. For some, it’s a profession, a means of survival. For others, it’s a hobby, a way to relax, clear the mind, and forget problems. There are also those who see this industry as a method of personal development, a way to learn (or teach) discipline, patience, and resilience. How we relate to woodworking is a personal matter. However, it is necessary to recognise that, like everything in life, working with wood also brings its share of risks. Cuts, injuries, respiratory problems, hearing loss, and even severe accidents with improperly handled tools are the most common problems.

female woodworker planing wood

If you enjoy woodworking as a hobby, minimising these risks is a moral obligation. If you are a professional, or if you’re teaching someone the skills of creating furniture, carving, joinery, and woodturning, taking precautions is not just a moral but also a legal obligation. The good news is that there are various pieces of equipment that can increase safety in woodworking. The great news is that we will provide you with a comprehensive explanation of everything you need to know. Keep reading to learn more.

What are the hazards of woodworking?

Whether you are a professional or just a fan of woodworking or carpentry, never neglect the risks associated with this activity. Woodworking requires sharp tools and heavy machinery. There’s a risk of cuts, abrasions, or more severe injuries from saws, drills, lathes, and other equipment. Moreover, power tools and machinery can be very noisy, leading to hearing damage if proper hearing protection is not used. These pieces of equipment can also pose possibilities of shocks, burns, or even electrocution, particularly in environments where there is dust or moisture. There’s also a chance of injuries from flying fragments when cutting or shaping wood.

Wood dust is another major concern in woodworking. Prolonged exposure to these airborne particulates can lead to respiratory issues and allergic reactions. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified wood dust as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning it’s known to cause tumours in humans, especially nasal and sinonasal cancers. The risk of developing these diseases primarily depends on the type of wood used. Deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in Autumn) such as oak, beech, and walnut produce a kind of dust that is more dangerous than the one emitted from working with pine and spruce.

Other factors that influence the emergence of cancer cells are the duration of exposure, intensity, the size of particulates in the air, and the presence of contaminants in the wood being handled. Additionally, many woodworking shops commonly use chemical products to enhance the final product’s appearance, quality, or durability. These substances, such as varnishes, stains, adhesives, and preservatives, can be dangerous if they come into contact with the skin or are inhaled and ingested.

The danger of fire must also not be neglected. Not only is the wood itself flammable, but the sawdust too can be highly combustible and, depending on storage conditions, potentially explosive. The situation is even more dangerous when this dust settles on containers of chemicals and solvents. Physical strain and ergonomic issues are also dangerous. Repetitive motions, awkward postures, and the physical handling of heavy materials can lead to musculoskeletal disorders, strains, and injuries.

woodworker with leather apron

Steps to keep safe from health risks

Here are some guidelines to help you avoid the most common threats.

1. Wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Wear safety goggles or glasses to protect your eyes from wood chips and dust, and use earplugs or earmuffs when operating loud machinery. Additionally, masks and respirators are paramount.

2. Maintain a clean and organised workspace

Keep your workspace tidy to minimise tripping hazards. Don’t forget to frequently clean up wood shavings and dust to reduce fire risk and respiratory problems.

3. Use tools and equipment responsibly

There is a reason tools and machinery come with manuals. Read the manufacturer’s instructions before operating these instruments. Use guards and safety devices on power tools to prevent accidents and ensure correct maintenance.

4. Practice safe lifting and handling techniques

When lifting heavy pieces, bend at the knees and lift with your legs, not your back. If a piece of wood is too heavy or difficult to carry, ask for help. Muscular injuries are among the most frequent safety risks when working with wood.

5. Be mindful of fire hazards

Never store flammable materials near heat sources, including sawdust and wood scraps. Have fire extinguishers readily available and ensure they are suitable for wood fires.

6. Know what to do

Keep a first aid kit in your workspace and learn basic emergency procedures. Save your contact numbers on your mobile or in a place easily accessible to medical crews, such as your wallet.

9. Manage dust effectively

Dust extraction for woodworking is essential to maintaining a safe and healthy environment. Such systems effectively capture wood dust at the source, significantly reducing its dispersion into the air and onto surfaces. Woodworking and carpentry, while offering immense satisfaction and tangible results, also bring dangers that cannot be overlooked. But, just as an artisan carves wood, hobbyists and industry professionals shape their work environment to prevent these risks from hindering their activities. In doing so, they ensure woodworking continues to be a valuable skill for all who find joy and purpose in turning raw materials into beautiful and functional objects.

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