Working with wood and its derivatives

Tuesday, 07 March, 2006

Recently, Safety Solutions magazine spoke at length to Dr Alan Halligan, from the Australian Wood and Paperboard Association, about the real and perceived dangers about the dust generated when cutting such materials as medium density fibreboard (MDF) and how to become informed on the differences between the OH&S myths and the reality when it comes to working with wood products in general and the issue of formaldehyde in particular. Following is an abbreviated transcript of that interview.

Safety Solutions: In terms of wood, what are the main OH&S challenges when using this material in the workplace?

Dr Alan Halligan: The main workplace OH&S issue when working with wood is dust - and this issue is easily addressed by following simple safety procedures. Fixed wood working machinery will have dust extraction equipment fitted as part of the system. This needs to be maintained just the same as the rest of the machinery. Hand power tools should be fitted with dust bags. Monitoring has shown that under these conditions and with normal ventilation, dust levels will stay well below the NOHSC safe occupational limit of 1 mg/m3 for hardwood dust and 5 mg/m3 for softwood dust. AWPA (Australian Wood Panels Association) members advise all their customers to maintain a safe level of 1 mg/m3 for all wood dust.

Studies in the UK by the Health & Safety Executive showed that there is no distinction between dust generated from solid wood and dust from fibreboard (MDF) or Particleboard. This finding has been endorsed by a similar study conducted in February this year at the CSIRO in Highett, Victoria. The study was conducted by AMCOSH hygienists from Werribee in conjunction with Worksafe Victoria.

Formaldehyde is a second perceived challenge when working with wood panels. However, monitoring of building sites, carpentry and joinery shops has confirmed that normal ventilation will keep formaldehyde levels to about one third the NOHSC safe workplace limit of 1 part per million (ppm) when measured as a time weighted average over an eight-hour working day. All Australian-made Particleboard and MDF is LFE - low formaldehyde emission - and meets the E1 classification as specified by the Australian Standard for these products.

Safety Solutions: Is dust generated from wood the only safety issue associated with wood?

Dr Alan Halligan: Dust is the main safety issue associated with wood in Australia, although some workers still perceive formaldehyde as a problem.

Safety Solutions: What kind of industries need to enforce dust management procedures as part of their OH&S policy?

Dr Alan Halligan: Any industry where dust is generated, and is inhalable, needs to implement dust management procedures. Dust management procedures for wood working industries should include:

  • Provision of vacuum equipment, assignment of responsibility and frequency of dust clean up.
  • Stressing that compressed air must never be used for removing wood dust.
  • Method and frequency of maintenance of dust extraction equipment, whether major fixed systems or dust bags on hand power tools.
  • Provision of and training on correct personal protection equipment and when to use it.

Safety Solutions: Can you please expand further on the MDF/formaldehyde issue?

Dr Alan Halligan: All wood panels made in Australia use formaldehyde-based resins to bond wood particles, fibres or veneers to manufacture Particleboard and MDF. Formaldehyde may be seen as an issue with all these products, not just MDF.

Finished products contain less than 0.01% of formaldehyde and by law, do not require any special labelling or hazard warnings. However, because workers have expressed concern, all Australian Particleboard and MDF packs carry warning labels advising that small quantities of formaldehyde will be released from these products. Under normal working conditions, formaldehyde levels around workers will remain well under OH&S safe limits, whether they are building and construction workers, or factory workers making products from wood panels.

Formaldehyde levels around those working with Australian manufactured wood panels are so low there is no danger to health. However, the AWPA understands workers will be concerned by the ill-informed publicity from time to time and has produced a health and safety kit which is available from the health and safety section of the AWPA website

Safety Solutions: In your opinion, should all wood products have some sort of classification to ensure companies use the correct safeguards?

Dr Alan Halligan: All Australian-made Particleboard and MDF have a formaldehyde classification of E1 and are stamped "Australian made LFE E1", meaning "low formaldehyde emission". Unfortunately, some imported panels are stamped low formaldehyde emission but testing has shown that these products are six or seven times higher than the E1 Australian Standard. So it is necessary to confirm Australian manufacture as well as LFE. All workers using wood products need to be safeguarded against wood dust, but this need comes from the fact that it is wood, so no special classification has to be identified.

Safety Solutions: Could you please explain the E1 and other standards?

Dr Alan Halligan: The E1 Standard originated in Europe and is now widely used around the world. Australia introduced the E1 Standard in the mid-1990s and decided to adopt it as a voluntary industry standard. By 1997-8, most Australian production of Particleboard and MDF met the E1 Standard. AWPA members recently decided to make available a lower emitting product, designated E0, which will be called ULFE or ultra low formaldehyde emission. This product carries a price premium due to higher production costs. All monitoring of workplaces and indoor air quality has confirmed that E1 products have easily met occupational regulations and indoor air quality recommendations. But some customers have asked for lower emitting products and they will be made available against order.

The only case of monitoring that has shown high formaldehyde levels has been mobile units - caravans and transportable units. These units can use a high ratio of wood panel to unit volume and have traditionally used cheap, imported, thin plywood as wall lining. Some of these imported products have formaldehyde emissions which far exceed the Australian E1 Standard. The AWPA is joining with other groups to lobby government for mandatory labelling of formaldehyde emission class for all wood panels, both local and imported.

Safety Solutions: So, would you say that the MDF issue is not the 'new asbestos' as some have claimed?

Dr Alan Halligan: In refuting the 'new asbestos' story, we need to know which urban myth you have heard. We have heard the one about formaldehyde being the new asbestos but not the MDF one (not yet anyway). There is one going around that MDF is banned in the USA. The USA/Canadian industry association (CPA) informs us that it has never been banned, is the second fastest growing panel product in the USA and that production was 4.4 million cubic metres in 2003 and growing at more than 10% per year.

All Australian-made wood panels are classed E1 for formaldehyde emission so they all emit the same low level of formaldehyde. Tests in the UK and in Australia prove that there is no difference in wood dust produced when machining or cutting MDF, Particleboard or sawn timber.

Both wood dust and formaldehyde are classed as Group 1 carcinogens which means they may cause cancer in humans, but at high concentration levels. Our health authorities, as well as health authorities around the world, have established safe limits for workers. Monitoring has confirmed that these safe limits can be maintained with fairly simple and standard procedures - equipment with dust extraction, normal maintenance, normal ventilation, regular cleaning up.

New asbestos is an attention grabbing headline but it is significant that the claim has not been made by anyone with credentials in the field of occupational health.

Interview conducted by Branko Miletic.

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