Every business must comply with general occupational health and safety regulations. The furniture and timber manufacturing industries also have specific OHS requirements to prevent risks to workers through the production process and to ensure that their products are safe for the consumer. There are also Australian Standards for machine guarding; cutting tools and product specifications just to name a few. Add to these the requirements for first aid, workers compensation and return to work rehabilitation for injured workers and it all gets complicated, time-consuming and expensive.

However, if you are unfortunate enough to be confronted with an accident of other safety issue, you need to show that you have done everything humanly possible to avoid that incident because the investigators will be looking to blame someone. Many OHS investigators are ex-police officers and detectives and their job is to find fault. It is therefore in your best interest to know as much as possible about the products you are using; any published literature on their use; any regulation or standard available that relates to every part of your business. The business that can supply plenty of documentation about their safety systems and procedures stand the best chance of coming out of an investigation with a clean sheet.

Dr Asli Tamer Vestlund was a past research and consultancy manager at the Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA) in the UK, one of the most highly respected international industry institutions. You may not be aware but the Australian Standards for wood working machine guarding were based on the British Standards so FIRA has significant relevance. Dr Vestlund said, “The woodworking industry, which includes furniture manufacturing, has one of the highest accident rates of all manufacturing industries.” She cites accidents caused by contact with moving machinery as the cause of the most serious accidents, followed by issues related to manual handling, hazardous substances and noise.

Whatever your business, equipment or materials you use, there will be regulations to guide you. It is essential that you consider the safety pyramid, also referred to as the hierarchy of control when dealing with safety issues. Your first action, no matter what you are doing and no matter what material is to try and eliminate the cause of the danger completely. It is justifiable to get another company to do whatever the process is, the responsibility then rests with someone else. The second control is substitution, replace the machine, process or material with a safe alternative. The third control is isolation; separate the worker from the machine, process or materials you cannot avoid using.

The fourth control is engineering controls where the equipment could be re-designed. This must be done by a fully qualified person and you must be able to prove his or her competence. The fifth control is administrative, and this entails signage, rotating worker’s jobs or education such as in-house safety training and meetings.

The sixth control, once you have considered one to five and as a last resort is for personal protective equipment, or PPE. If you give an employee a face mask or earmuffs without pursuing the other five controls, you will find yourself in hot water if you are ever investigated. PPE is available in many price points but if you are serious about the welfare of your people, it should always be of good quality. A good example are CleanSpace respirators designed by a medical device engineering team.

The more obvious issues will be the equipment and the product as these are the items you see every day. The less obvious issues and arguably the ones that will cause you long-term concern are things like wood dust, respirable crystalline silica created when dry-cutting engineered (artificial) stone found in kitchen benchtops, and noise.

Assuming you are unable to eliminate or substitute the processes and materials that cause these issues, and your employees are separated as much as practicable from the source of these issues, you might find yourself looking at engineering controls and there is a lot you can do here. Specially designed particle extraction hoods from all types of cutting or abrading machines are available on some equipment. Low noise cutting tools (saws and rotating cutters like router bits) are also available with features that control dust or silicates.

The WorkSafe websites in each state have a lot of information on machine guarding, noise and control of hazardous materials. There is a compliance code for managing exposure to crystalline silica and you can download this for free. In fact, WorkSafe has a lot of information on this subject. As you would expect there’s a lot of general safety information including for noise but for machine guarding you will need to visit the Standards Australia website and most of the standards there come with a fee. You can apply standards from other countries but if you are investigated you will need to show that the standard you are using is equal to or greater than the Australian Standard. In other words, you could need a lawyer to argue this. The bottom line? Don’t risk it.