Source: Robert Woodcock, RN, BSN, CEN

Today, hardwood floors are more popular than ever; and there is greater demand that the products and procedures used in the finishing process be environmentally responsible, and more importantly, safe for both the homeowner and the contractor. Health is one issue that is often overlooked in favor of time or cost-saving efforts.

One step in the complete floor finishing process, sanding, has always created an enormous amount of airborne wood dust. Wood dust, generated by floor sanding, is a known toxin and carcinogen. While the level of toxicity varies considerably according to the species of the wood, it is still highly recommended that every precautionary measure be taken, especially for the hardwood flooring professional that faces frequent or long-term exposure.

The list below indicates woods whose dust has been identified as toxic. The second column lists a code for the type of reaction (I – irritant, S- sensitizer, C- cancer causing, P- hyper-sensitivity pneumonia, or DT – direct toxin). The third column shows the potency level.

When wood particles become airborne, potential health hazards are numerous. For example, exposure has long been associated with a variety of adverse health effects, including eye irritation, nasal dryness and obstruction, prolonged colds, and frequent headaches.

Smokers or workers with sinus or respiratory conditions may risk even worse health problems. Wood dust on the floor can also cause slipping, and vision can be impaired by airborne dust generated during sanding operations.

The infiltration and permeation of dust into vents and air conditioning units creates the potential for poor air quality as it is circulated throughout the house, escalating the dangers of the homeowner breathing it in, or having to deal with the nightmare of cleaning it up.

Recognizing these hazards, the responsibility for personal and workplace health and safety rests in the hands of the hardwood flooring professional.

“Dust from sanding a hardwood floor can do more damage than many people think,” said Ron Peden, CEO for BonaKemi USA. “There are ways to contain dust which are now easier, and more efficient, providing healthier working conditions, while dramatically increasing speed and profitability of each job.”

The best way to control dust inhalation is through properly designed and maintained dust containment or extraction systems. There are trailer and truck-mounted systems, the latest advancement in dust containment technology, which provides complete evacuation of dust from the entire floor sanding process.

Several other sanding systems are available to protect hardwood flooring professionals from frequent and lengthy sanding exposure, and are specifically designed to virtually eliminate the amount of airborne dust and actual exposure time. These dust containment systems use portable vacuums to capture and remove the dust before the contractor is exposed to it.

Dust containment systems can help the sander, contractor, homeowner and building owner in other ways. The reduction of airborne dust exposure results in a much cleaner work area during and after sanding. For workers, the clean working environment allows them to see their work better, and is more comfortable, as well as less irritating to eyes, nose, and throat. Other cost savings will also result from a cleaner environment that reduces dust, and amply reduces cleanup time on occupied residences.

Homeowners want a dust-free environment for obvious reasons, and dust containment is becoming an expected service. Instead of being just a competitive advantage for a contractor’s business, in the future, dust containment will be essential to their ability to compete. No homeowner wants to be prevented from enjoying his or her home, regardless of the work being done. The elimination of dust from the sanding process increases the speed, efficiency and quality of work, without the need to hang plastic, or extended time for clean up. A homeowner can get back to his or her daily routine as soon as possible.

“Most of the calls I get are due to being able to provide dust containment. My customers are consistently amazed at how clean their home stays,” said Tim Daly of TGB Flooring in Littleton, Colorado. “After spending several years living with constant sinus problems, it is now a rarity that I ever get a sinus infection.”

Contractors can provide healthier working conditions for themselves and their employees, and a cleaner environment for homeowners using a dust containment system. Ultimately, these systems allow contractors to start and finish the job faster, eliminate dust from settling back down into the finish, limit clean up time and charge more for quality results!

“Customers really like the idea of dust containment when a job is in their home, especially when they never have to leave it during the job,” states Dale Ottley of Ottley Floor Company in Salt Lake City, Utah. “It puts pressure on others to get the system to be able to compete. Dust containment systems make sanding and finishing a more appealing career for a contractor by minimizing the health hazard of dust that would normally be inhaled. It’s now a cleaner, safer and healthier process.” Even as dust containment systems are being used more frequently, there are still a variety of methods and precautionary measures that should be considered to ensure the safety of those involved in the finishing job. It is suggested that contractors follow OSHA regulations before and during a sanding or finishing job.