In this article
Carpentry is one of the oldest types of trade, and carpenters are always in high demand. Carpenters work in a variety of environments and need to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and people around them. It is important that they know what safety issues to be aware of and how to observe and promote safety at work.
What is the role of a carpenter?
Carpentry and joinery are both construction trades working with wood. Carpenters might work in a workshop, at a client’s business, on a construction site or at a customer’s home.
Depending on where they work, the role may involve:
- Making and fitting structures such as staircases, door frames, windows, roof timbers, floor joists, floorboards and partition walls
- Drawing and working with technical drawings including Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
- Fitting interiors such as skirting boards, cupboards and kitchens
- Creating fitted furniture
- Working in residential or commercial buildings
- Shopfitting, manufacturing and installing internal and external frames, shop fronts, fixtures and fittings for shops, bars, restaurants, offices and public buildings, for example
- Restoration work, for example at historical buildings
- Constructing stage sets for theatre, film and TV productions
- Putting up frames for bridges, roads, dams and buildings
- Measuring, marking up, cutting, shaping, fitting and finishing timber
- Using a range of hand and power tools
- Often working in cramped conditions or at height
- Adhering to strict safety regulations and adhering to construction legislation
The above list is not exhaustive. Whatever the environment they work in, a carpenter will be responsible for ensuring the safety of their equipment and resources to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main hazards of working with wood?
Woodworking is a dangerous trade. There are many potential hazards present in a carpenter’s work environment which could lead to severe injury or even death.
Sanding and planing wood creates wood dust, and breathing it in can cause nasal cancer, serious lung problems and asthma, which carpenters are four times more likely to get compared with other UK workers. Both hardwood and softwood dusts have a Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) which must not be exceeded. The WEL for hardwood dust is 3mg/m3 (based on an 8-hour time-weighted average). The WEL for softwood dust is 5mg/m3 (based on an 8-hour time-weighted average). For mixtures of hardwood and softwood dusts the WEL for hardwood dust of 3mg/m3 applies to all wood dusts present in that mixture. Employers must provide dust extraction, also known as local exhaust ventilation or LEV, at woodworking machines to capture and remove dust before it can spread.
Concentrations of small wood dust particles are highly flammable. They can accumulate in machines, local exhaust ventilation (LEV) and in the workroom. Regularly clean the entire workroom, including all machines, to prevent dust build-up and control any fire hazards.
Wood dust, shavings, chips or slivers can also cause injuries to the eyes or skin through splinters. Carpenters are most at risk from flying debris from the chipping, chiselling, drilling, grinding, sanding and sawing of wood. Even a tiny splinter of wood can cause severe eye damage.
Working in buildings with asbestos present can create long-term health issues if exposed repeatedly or for long periods of time. Asbestos is the most prominent disease risk to construction workers as a whole, with research suggesting that it has been responsible for over 2,500 deaths a year due to its part in causing cancers and serious lung diseases. This includes mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, asbestosis (scarring in the lungs) and diffuse pleural thickening (thickening of the membrane around the lungs).
Carpenters and joiners typically work alongside or between electricians and electrical work, and electric shock is an unfortunate major hazard for this reason. Carpenters should take care to treat every cable they come across as live unless they have been directly told otherwise.
Carpenters regularly use workbenches, but when a bench is too low, bending over can result in back aches and pains. Try to be aware of potential problems like this, and think about how to resolve the situation such as raising the height of the bench, or sitting in a chair or on a stool while working. There is also the risk of knee injuries, as being a carpenter can require them to kneel on hard floors to install items such as skirting boards and flooring.
Tools used improperly could risk causing severe injury, so it is important to have the right training in their use. All employees using chainsaws must be trained to handle them properly. Additionally, there are risks of injury from the wear and tear of equipment if it is no longer fit for purpose. Hand tools and electrical equipment should be regularly checked for any faults or damage, to prevent injury. All woodworking machinery must be cleaned regularly and inspected before each use.
The most common injuries sustained by carpenters and joiners include fractured hands, feet and toes due to crushing and squashing-related accidents. Loss of fingers can also happen due to dangerous or faulty tools or equipment. Nail gun injuries are also common, where nails are accidentally fired through hands and feet.
When using loud machinery or operating tools that cause loud noises over a long period of time, a person’s hearing could be affected. These changes may not be immediately obvious, but the noise of construction sites has been attributed to hearing loss in later life.
Prolonged exposure to vibrations from hand-held power tools can damage blood vessels, nerves, muscles and tendons. Symptoms can include white patches on the hands, especially in cold weather, a tingling in the fingers, numbness in the fingers and even a gradual loss of sensation. We will look at the risks of using power tools later in this guide.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) is the law that requires employers to control substances that are hazardous to health. The woodworking industry is deceptively full of hazardous substances. Inhaling or touching certain substances, such as wood preservatives or epoxy resins, can cause severe dermatitis, a skin condition resulting from direct irritation. Considering the more obvious woodworking hazards, hygiene can seem insignificant by comparison. Hands are the part of the body most likely to encounter harmful substances whilst woodworking. Employees who neglect routinely washing their hands can develop serious skin irritation due to accumulated chemicals.
Slips, trips and falls risks
Slips, trips and falls are one of the top three causes of non-fatal work injuries involving days away from work. Each year they cause thousands of preventable injuries, and they can cause various injuries such as bruises, sprains, scrapes, broken bones and head traumas. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) several thousand construction workers are injured each year following a trip or slip whilst at work on a building site. Around 1,000 of these injuries involve someone fracturing bones or dislocating joints.
Key aspects of construction slips and trips include:
- Uneven surfaces
- Trailing cables
- Wet or slippery surfaces
- Changes in level
Slips and trips affect the whole workplace, so everyone should work to eliminate them by cleaning up spills or debris, even if they did not cause them. Dispose of all debris safely in a skip, bin or designated areas for waste collection, as the debris may contain nails or other sharp objects. Keep work area floors clean, orderly and dry, and keep surfaces free of hazards such as sharp objects, loose boards, corrosions, leaks, spills, snow and ice. Signpost any slippery areas and make sure footwear with a good grip is worn. We will look at PPE later in this guide.
Carpenters often have to perform repairs at heights. Falling from height can cause serious or even fatal injury. Employees should exercise every precaution when working at height. For carpenters working on ladders, scaffolding or any other type of access equipment, falls from heights are a risk that needs to be taken into consideration. Using framed scaffolds offers several advantages over using ladders by providing a wider, more stable work platform. Working from scaffolding with a wide work platform is much easier and safer than working from a ladder.
Working at height can also pose risks for others, as a worker falling from a height may injure anyone below when they fall. Avoid working directly underneath someone else where possible, and ensure that any tools or materials kept at a height are well secured so they can’t fall or cause harm.
When working at height, always change tools in secure areas where there is no risk of letting the tools fall from the height and possibly risk injuring anyone belowand don’t use tools without attaching them to a work belt when working at height. Tools being used at height should regularly be checked for damage and that there is no damage to lanyards, carabiners, attachment rings or belts.
Manual handling risks
Manual handling is a term that is used to cover a range of activities and movements, including lifting, carrying, pushing, lowering and more. When any of these things are overdone or performed incorrectly, they can result in injuries known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs include sprains and strains, repetitive strain injury (RSI), back injuries, hernias, pain in the arms, legs or joints, and soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), manual handling incidents account for around 30% of all workplace injuries and many of the injuries in woodworking are caused during manual handling activities.
There is potential for injury to occur during:
- Handling of timber and board material
- Machining and assembly
- Handling and storage of the finished product, for example roof trusses
For carpenters, most injuries occur from stresses and strains over a sustained period of time instead of from a singular event. Carpenters are required to lift very large, heavy objects, such as wood panels, which can result in injuries from poor posture.
Manual handling injuries shouldn’t necessarily be a given, and there may be some things that can be done to reduce the risk of an incident or injury from happening. Make the loads smaller and lighter and, if possible, increase the number of people lifting the objects. Manual handling training is so important, as it can make you aware of the potential risks and injuries, and learning the principles of manual handling could prevent a serious injury in the future.
Using power equipment
Carpenters can use a wide variety of woodcutting machinery in the course of their work. These might include, but are not limited to:
- Dimension (panel) saw – in addition to ripping, these saws can be used in various modes including cross-cutting and grooving. It is very important, however, to use the correct blade and it is important that the guard is adjusted to cover both blades when in use.
- Circular saw bench – generally used for cutting in line with the grain. As with the panel saw, as well as risk from contact with the blade there is also a risk of being struck by an ejected workpiece.
- Cross-cut saw – guards must cover as much of the blade as possible and cross-cut saws should now either be fitted with a brake or a device to pull back the cutting head, locating the blade within a safe protected area. There should also be a “no-go” area for hands – 300mm either side of the blade – to prevent the blade from being pulled over the thumb or fingers accidentally.
- Surface planer – used in the initial preparation of wood, producing flat faces and square edges. Problems can occur when fingers get dragged between the fence and guard and contact the cutters.
- Vertical spindle moulder – one of the most versatile machines in woodworking, it can be used for mouldings, rebates and curved work. However, it can be dangerous if not used correctly, because of the risk of contact with the tool, and ejection of the tool part or workpiece.
- Re-saws – these machines have powered rollers for fast ripping operations, and because of the high noise levels are usually fitted with soundproof enclosures.
- Narrow band saws – it is important that there is a guard under the table to prevent the blade from being ejected if it snaps, as well as accidental contact during use. A clicking noise is indicative of a cracked blade.
- Thicknesser – used after the surface planer to reduce thicknesses. The main danger is from ejected material, hence anti-kickback feet are fitted.
- High-speed router – used for rebates and mouldings, generally one-off jobs rather than using a spindle moulder. Material is fed towards the direction of the cutters. Old-style cutters have open cutters that can pull a hand in if contact is made. New cutters are built up, designed to force fingers away, rather than pull them in, in the event of contact.
- Single-ended tenoning machine – used to cut tenon profiles for mortice holes, across the grain. The workpiece is held in place by pads. The operator works close to the cutting heads, so guarding is important.
- Four-sided planer/moulder – this takes large sections of rough timber and either planes or produces profiles with its four cutting heads so all four sides can be worked in one pass. Newer models have interlocked enclosures and remote access for tool adjustment, with the interlock cutting power, stopping the feed and applying braking. Older models should be provided with a noise enclosure which can reduce noise levels to below 90dB. Adjustable guards around the cutters will still be required.
- Straight line edger – used to machine a rough-edged board, which is where the bark, of variable thickness, is still on. Boards are power fed into a circular saw that is set between two sets of rollers. The main risk is from ejected offcuts and kickbacks, therefore additional guarding is essential at the take-off end and anti-kickback features are fitted.
- Morticer – used for producing square holes and tenons with the slot produced from overlapping the square holes. Similar in action to a pedestal drill, with a lever pulling down the cutter. Generally, a low-risk machine, with the main danger being the ejection of the workpiece when using chain cutters so it is important that it is clamped effectively. Another danger is accidental contact with the cutters so it is also important to switch off the machine when changing the workpiece. However, even accidental contact with the cutters when the machine is switched off can still cut hands.
- Sanders (disc, bobbin and belt) – the main risk is from ejection.
- Nail guns – these are used in workshops during assembly, for example bed manufacture or pallet making. They also get used a lot on site for shop fitting, timber frame erection, etc. There are three main types of nail gun. For factory use the type operated by compressed air is most common. For site use the type using butane gas is widely used. The butane is mixed with air in a combustion chamber and ignited by an electric spark when the trigger is pulled. The third type is lightweight and much less powerful and uses an electric motor and spring to drive the piston; some of these are battery operated. When using a nail gun there is always the risk that a nail may be deflected or that splinters could be ejected towards the operator or those nearby or that exhaust gas could propel dust into the operator’s face. Eye protection should be used to reduce the risk of these injuries. Accident analysis found that the vast majority of eye injuries caused by nail guns would have been prevented if eye protection had been worn. Nail gun safety features must not be defeated or disconnected. Nail guns can also produce high noise levels, particularly when used in a machine configuration, for example when making fence panels. It is crucial that nail gun operators position themselves and the gun angle correctly as they may risk placing themselves in the line of fire and shooting their own torso.
Carpenters should always use power tools correctly and only use what they are trained to use. They should check all hand tools and equipment for faults before using them and maintain up-to-date maintenance reports to assess the tools’ safety.
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) places duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over work equipment. PUWER also places responsibilities on businesses and organisations whose employees use work equipment, whether owned by them or not.
PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:
- Suitable for the intended use.
- Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate.
- Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices.
- Used in accordance with specific requirements, for mobile work equipment and power presses.
- Some work equipment is subject to other health and safety legislation in addition to PUWER. For example, lifting equipment must also meet the requirements of LOLER (The Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations); pressure equipment must meet the Pressure Systems Safety Regulations; and personal protective equipment must meet the PPE Regulations.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
Carpenters must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect a carpenter’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many trades, carpenters have certain PPE which is specific to their job. Carpenters are exposed to a variety of risks associated with their work such as falling objects or falling from a great height, awkward postures, handling of dangerous materials, use of machine tools such as planes and circular saws, allergic reactions, respiratory problems due to dust, asbestos, splinters of wood – the dangers are many. To avoid possible injury, wearing personal protective equipment is a real necessity.
- Gloves – as a carpenter is working with their hands using dangerous tools and working with wood, it is essential that they have protection for their hands at all times. Gloves are necessary to protect the carpenter’s hands from splinters and cuts and can allow them to work with confidence knowing that their hands are protected.
- Dust masks and respirators – when working with wood, a lot of dust and particles are created that can cause a range of breathing problems, including permanent scarring of the lungs. Fumes are also produced by wood treatments and other products like varnish, wood paint and solvents. This is why it is important to use high-quality dust masks and/or respirators to reduce the risk of inhaling coarse particles or chemical fumes. The type of protection should prevent irritation of the airways and the onset of long-term conditions, and must always be chosen to match the hazards and risks at hand.
- Eye protection – similarly, a carpenter will also need eye protection from wood splintering, dust or sawdust or even more dangerous products and other particles in the air. Wearing goggles that will provide full protection without worrying about something flying into the eyes and causing damage.
- Ear protection – carpenters often work in a noisy environment. Machines and tools used daily emit a high noise level. Failure to wear dedicated hearing protection equipment such as using noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs or earmuffs, either reusable or disposable, can lead to severe damage to the eardrum, tinnitus or even irreversible hearing loss in one or both ears.
- Head protection – carpenters’ heads are highly vulnerable and very exposed on most job sites; therefore, the head must be protected with a hard hat designed for the role and must be highly resistant to impacts, fire and penetration. It is also important to inspect the safety helmet on a daily basis to ensure that the structure and various components – the outer shell, chin strap and visor – are in good condition to ensure adequate head protection.
- Protective clothing – carpenters should wear the correct protective clothing to match the working conditions and the potential risks of each situation. An example is trousers with removable knee pads which are highly recommended to protect joints and improve comfort when performing jobs involving kneeling.
- Safety shoes – these are designed to limit the risk of minor to serious foot injuries. On a job site or in the workshop, carpenters may be at risk of falling objects like timbers or beams and there is a risk of perforation from tools or material on site. Non-slip or waterproof footwear should be worn in slip-prone areas.
- Fall protection – carpenters generally work on the ground but may have to work at heights for tasks such as building staircases, flooring or even fitting door or window frames; there is therefore a risk of falling from job sites. While the risk of falling is rare, it is not unheard of, so a carpenter’s PPE should include fall protection equipment depending on the job site and the structures in place. When carrying out specific jobs where there is a risk of falling from a height, carpenters might use, for example, a full harness, a retractable type fall arrester, a lanyard with shock absorber, anchor points and/or connectors.
What training should carpenters take?
When carpenters are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all carpenters appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for carpenters might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- Asbestos Awareness
- COSHH Awareness
- Working at height
- Ladder safety
- Slips, Trips and Falls
Get started on a course suitable for carpenters
Health and Safety for Managers£49 + VAT View course
Slips, Trips and Falls£20 + VAT View course
Ladder safety£20 + VAT View course
Workplace First Aid£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Employees£20 + VAT View course
Asbestos Awareness£20 + VAT View course
COSHH Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Working at height£20 + VAT View course
Manual Handling£20 + VAT View course