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When Should Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) Be Worn To Control Exposure To Wood Dust?

All wood dust [including dust from composites like MDF, chipboards and fibre boards etc] is hazardous to health: it can affect the nose, the respiratory system and the skin.

The control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, as amended 2004, require employers to assess the health risks and precautions needed to prevent or control exposure to hazardous substances such as wood dust.

The Regulations also prioritise the order in which control measures should be applied. RPE is a last resort measure, the first priority should always be to prevent exposure or, if this is not possible, ‘to control it at source’, for example by effective local exhaust ventilation.

Personal protection [such as protective clothing and respirators] may be needed as an interim measure where engineering controls are being developed and/or modified and for short-term jobs such as cleaning, emptying waste receptacles and maintenance; personal protective equipment can only help the person who wears it. RPE is no substitute for effective control of dust at source.

RPE used to protect against wood dust must meet two basic requirements:

  • The RPE must be suitable for the purpose for which it is used. This means that it must provide effective protection to the wearer in the circumstances in which it is worn. It must be capable of providing a sufficient quantity of clean air for the wearer to breathe, it must fit the wearer and the wearer must use it properly in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. If the respirator is not a disposable ‘one shift’ type, it must also be cleaned daily and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

  • RPE must be CE marked. You may have some equipment manufactured before 1 July 1995 that is not CE marked – it should have Health and Safety Executive approval [refer to Respiratory protective equipment: Legislative requirement and lists of HSE approved standards and type approved equipment HSE Books 1995]. Such equipment can continue to be used as long as it is suitable [see paragraph 1 above] and well maintained.

For further guidance on the selecting, use and maintenance of RPE refer to Respiratory protective equipment at work: A practical guide, HSG53 HSE Books 2005.

There are some simple masks, known as nuisance dust masks, which do not give any reliable protection against substances hazardous to health. These should not be used with wood dust.

Personal and work-related factors in selection of RPE.

All types of RPE restrict the wearer to some extent, by imposing extra breathing resistance on the lungs and by restricting visibility or mobility. These restrictions underline the need to control exposures by other means wherever possible. It is also important to remember that effective protection is only given when equipment which is of the right standard and in good condition is properly fitted and used. Removal of the RPE, even for short periods, dramatically reduces the level of protection afforded to the wearer.

A respirator which is not worn or is hung around the neck gives no protection at all.

Face masks depend on good contact between the skin and mask for their effectiveness.

Many face masks are available in one size only and cannot be expected to fit all the working population. A good fit and seal are essential – without them the respirator will not give effective protection.

It is advisable to obtain a selection of different models of RPE so that masks can be selected to give the best fit for individual wearers. It will only be possible to get a good seal if the skin in the region of the seal is smooth and without hair. Facial hair or glasses will tend to lift the mask off the face and permit inward leakage of contaminated air.

For face fitting instructions refer to Fit testing of respiratory protective equipment face pieces, HSE 282/28 Jan 03.


Everyone who is involved in the use of RPE should be appropriately trained. They must be aware of why the RPE is being worn and how it should be worn properly. Training may be available from the supplier or manufacturer of your RPE.

Respirators for woodworking

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