In an exclusive article for Furniture Production, Dr Asli Tamer Vestlund, pictured, the research and consultancy manager at the Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA), takes a look at some of the hazards which afflict our industry.

The Health and Safety Executive has reported that the woodworking industry, which includes furniture manufacturing, has one of the highest accident rates of all manufacturing industries.

The majority of serious accidents are caused by contact with moving machinery through inadequate guarding. In 2012, these incidents accounted for 25% of all major accidents as well as one of the two deaths in the woodworking industry.

Manual handling
Some of the other major hazards that affect the furniture manufacturing industry include manual handling. Typical activities in the woodworking and furniture manufacturing industries that may cause manual handling injuries include: handling of timber and board material; machining and assembly; and the handling and storage of the finished product.

Rather obviously, manual handling can lead to back injury, sprains and strains as well as lacerations or fractures.

The first and foremost mitigation to help avoid a manual handling injury is to complete a risk assessment to determine if manual handling is required in the first place. Perhaps the load could be moved by mechanical means instead of physical?

If manual lifting is the only option, then there are a number of things that can be done to reduce the risk – for example, by making the load smaller or lighter and easier to lift. It is also always advisable to ensure that the person doing the lifting has received training and understands how to lift as safely as possible.

Hazardous substances
Machining and finishing furniture products may lead to exposure to wood dust, as well as paints, lacquers and glues, which may result in respiratory problems or other conditions such as dermatitis.

Wood dust particularly can cause very serious health problems. For example, the Health and Safety Executive estimates that carpenters and joiners are four times more likely to get asthma compared with other UK workers. Hardwood dust can also cause cancer, particularly of the nose. In a court case in 2011, the widow of a cabinetmaker who died of nasal cancer in 2005, was awarded £375,000.

Other hazardous substances such as some varnishes, paints, thinners and stains, may cause liver or kidney damage as well as central nervous system defects.

Some of the control measures that can be employed for mitigating the risks of wood dust are: the instalment of dust extractors, the use of respirators when working with wood, the completion of regular health surveillance for employees regularly exposed to wood dust.

The furniture industry can be one of the noisiest environments to work in. Exposure to high noise levels can cause temporary hearing loss as well as permanent damage when exposed for long periods. Therefore, it is very important for a manufacturer to control the risks of hearing damage at the workplace, either through measures to eliminate it completely or to reduce it as low as possible at the source, taking into account any noise exposure limits.

Legal responsibility
Employers are bound by strict Health and Safety regulations designed to protect both the employees and the wider environment. These regulations are enforced by law, as opposed to being voluntary systems, and the consequences of any breaches are potentially very serious. However, good health and safety practice is not just a legal requirement, ensuring that your employees are protected from injury demonstrates that you are a responsible manufacturer and can result in increased efficiency and lower absenteeism as well.

FIRA expertise
FIRA International’s research and consultancy manager, Dr Asli Tamer Vestlund, is also its health and safety adviser, she is National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health qualified and specialises in providing health and safety consultancy to the furniture industry.

She says: “Whether you are a large organisation and need to implement a formal management system, such as OHSAS 18001 – or a small manufacturer and need some assistance in understanding the steps required to comply with legislation and safeguard your business against potential problems, then I can tailor our service to suit your business.

“Health and Safety incidents can be very costly to deal with, whether through time investigating incidents, fines or claims. It makes good business sense for furniture manufacturers to ensure that they have a robust Health and Safety system. FIRA has been providing consultancy to the furniture industry for over 60 years, so get in touch and find out how we can support your business.”

Tel 01438 777700