ESS Consultants Monthly Briefing

Set Workshops: the dangers of MDF dust

What is the problem

Set construction has a varied list of hazards, from the use of hand tools and machinery, to manual handling and many others. One area that sometimes gets overlooked is working within an environment where MDF dust may be present.

MDF dust is created when MDF boards, used for a variety of purposes in set builds are cut or sanded etc. 

The atmosphere created by machining or sanding MDF board contains a mixture of softwood dust and hardwood dust (if it is present). In addition, there will also be free formaldehyde; dust particles onto which formaldehyde is adsorbed and potentially, the resin binder itself and its derivatives. 

The levels of free formaldehyde in boards made within the EU at levels of formaldehyde class E1 are thought to be insignificant. This is because at these levels the resin is fully reacted (polymerised)

Under current legislation softwood dust, hardwood dust and formaldehyde are considered to be hazardous to health. 

Both softwood and hardwood dusts are known to be respiratory sensitisers and may cause asthma and other respiratory problems. 

Hardwood dust can also cause a rare form of nasal cancer.


Employers have duties under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) to control risks to employees' health arising from work activities.

This means they need to ensure exposures to wood dust and formaldehyde are kept as far below the Workplace Exposure Limits (WELs) as reasonably practicable.WELs are the concentrations of hazardous material in the air averaged over a specified time period – called the Time Weighted Average (TWA).

Exposure Limits

Two periods are used, long-term (8 hours) and short-term (15 mins) – the long-term representing a working day and the short-term to help prevent effects such as eye irritation which may occur after only a few minutes exposure.

The WELs for hardwood dust, softwood dust and formaldehyde are expressed in the number of milligrams (mg) of material in one cubic metre of air (m3).Levels of formaldehyde are also expressed in parts per million (ppm). 

The current WELs are:

Formaldehyde - 2.5 mg/m3 or 2 ppm for both the long-term exposure limit and the short-term exposure limit

Hardwood and softwood dust - 5 mg/m3 for the long-term exposure limit. There is no short-term WEL

Controlling the risk 

To control exposures, employers should follow the 'hierarchy of control' set out in the COSHH Regulations. 

This means:

- Try to reduce risks at source where possible by using a lower risk alternative, where one exists. An example of this could be to use a ‘no added formaldehyde’ MDF board or low-emission MDF board if practicable to do so.

-There should be an effective dust extraction system in use whenever MDF is machined or sanded. This is often termed local exhaust ventilation (LEV).

-Use vacuum cleaners with high performance filters (HEPA) to clean up MDF dust, or use a hose connected to the LEV system. 

-Airlines and brushes should not be used as these produce clouds of fine dust that is easily breathed in.

-Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) may also be needed but this will generally be the last line of protection.

For more information, contact us via email or phone 0843 289 1097