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Wood dust: Choosing the right respiratory protective equipment

Date posted: 20 October 2015

What is the most suitable respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to use when your work produces hardwood or softwood dust?

Responsible employers are committed to looking after their employees' health and safety, and, in a woodworking context, using the right kind of RPE is one important aspect of this care. In any case, it is a requirement by law: the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH)1 require employers to assess and control the health risks from hazardous substances such as wood dust. Obviously the best protection is to try to prevent exposure in the first place by controlling any wood dust produced at source, and the best method of doing this is to put in place effective local exhaust ventilation (LEV).

RPE is no substitute for controlling the dust at source, and should only ever be used as a temporary or extra level of protection. You may need to use respirators and other personal protection as a temporary measure where engineering controls are being developed or modified, for example – or you may employ this equipment on short-term jobs such as cleaning up and maintenance that creates high levels of dust.

Top factors to remember:

  • All wood dust poses a health hazard. It can affect the nose, the respiratory system and lungs, and the skin – and that includes dust from composites such as chipboards, fibre boards, and so forth.
  • Whereas LEV will protect everyone in your workplace, a respiratory protective equipment will only protect the person who is wearing it.
  • Dust respirators work by filtering the air that is inhaled by the wearer, making it safe to breathe. They are not suitable for use in places where the amount of oxygen in the air may be low, such as in confined spaces. These scenarios demand breathing apparatus, delivering air from an independent source like a cylinder.
  • Unpowered respirators can make it more difficult to breathe, and are therefore not well-suited to high work rates, when powered respirators are a better solution.
  • Dust respirators offer zero protection against gases and vapours such as those emitted during paint spraying, so should only be used as intended.

Which respirator will provide adequate protection?

Here you can find out which respirator (using the established RPE protection factor) will offer adequate protection according to the typical woodworking operation being carried out.

Disposable half face masks, sometimes called “filtering facepieces” or “orinasal respirators”, offer different protection factors (4, 10 or 20). Reusable masks and powered hoods/helmets also offer a range of protection factors up to 40. The Health and Safety Executive recommends that a protection factor of at least 20 is used to control the risk from wood dust.

  • Cutting pine / similar wood using saws, routers, vertical spindle moulders (VSMs), lathes, planers, etc - producing low dust levels: Protection factor 10 may be adequate as long as effective local exhaust ventilation (LEV) is being used.
  • Wood sanding by hand, disc, bobbin, pad, etc, and all work involving more toxic woods*  such as MDF, hardwoods, western red cedar, etc: Protection factor 20
  • Changing dust collection bags on simple recirculating dust collectors in the workroom: Protection factor 20
  • Entry into dust collection room/vaults; entry into very dusty filter galleries for bag changing; work inside heavily contaminated ducts: Protection factor 20 (Note: It is vital to make sure none of these are confined spaces with an oxygen-deficient atmosphere)


  • Basic “nuisance dust masks” offer no protection against substances hazardous to health, and should not be used with wood dust.
  • Any RPE used to protect against wood dust must be CE marked, and suitable for the specific tasks you are undertaking, i.e. must provide effective protection to the wearer from the dust levels that they are exposed to, as well as offering them adequate clean air to breathe.
  • Any RPE used must be in good condition; properly fitted; stored correctly; and in the case of non-disposable RPE must be properly maintained by a competent person.
  • RPEs must be used exactly as indicated by the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Do not use respirators with an assigned protection factor of 4 for wood dust as they do not offer adequate protection.

Personal and work-related considerations in your RPE selection

Fit testing:

RPE fit testing should be carried out by someone who is competent and possesses the necessary skills, knowledge and experience. Your RPE supplier or manufacturer should be able to advise you.

Good contact between the skin and the mask is vital if the RPE is to be effective. Ensure the mast is tight-fitting. Many are only available in one size, but these will not fit everyone and therefore will not be suitable for everyone – in which case you must look at a different product to achieve a good fit for each individual.

To achieve a good seal between mask and skin there must be no hair or other obstacles in the way. If If a good fit cannot be achieved using a tight-fitting mask, consider a powered respirator instead.

Employers should keep fit-test records for a minimum of five years and these should include the following details:

  • The name of the person being fit tested.
  • The make, model, material and size of the mask.
  • Whether the item used is the wearer’s own mask (and if so, its condition), a company 'pool' (shared) mask, or a fit-test service provider’s test mask.
  • Whether the wearer needed help putting on and fit checking the facepiece before the fit-test.
  • The date of the test.
  • Details of who carried out the fit test (name, company, address, and so on).
  • Details of the test exercises undertaken during the test.
  • A description of the fit-test method that was used (e.g. qualitative such as a taste sensitivity test, or quantitative, such as testing with a particle counting device).
  • Details of measured fit-factor values for each test exercise, and the overall fit factor (or whether the item was passed/failed for qualitative tests).
  • The pass level used in the test.
  • How many repeat tests were required to get a pass and the reasons why.
  • The serial number or equivalent identifier for the equipment used in the fit test.

Training and maintenance:

  • Anyone who is required to wear RPE must be trained to ensure they fully understand the reasons why they must wear it, and how to wear it (and check the equipment) properly with every use.
  • Training is also required in how to clean and store RPE whilst not in use. This should be based on information from the RPE's manufacturer. Always follow their recommendations and instructions for filter replacement and cleaning / disinfecting non-disposable RPE, which will usually be required at least once each working day. Usually you can clean rubber facepieces using simple soap and lukewarm water, but always check and follow the manufacturer’s specific recommendations and instructions.
  • Discard disposable respirators after one shift, or even more frequently if dust exposure is particularly high.

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