Helsinki (20.06.2001 - Juhani Artto) "About 6,000 cases of occupational illness are discovered in Finland every year, but there is very little public debate on the problem", professor Jyrki Liesivuori stated last year at a seminar organised by the Wood and Allied Workers' Union. There has been no change in the situation since that time.

One example of an underestimated risk mentioned by prof. Liesivuori was wood dust, which in Finland mainly originates from birch, pine and spruce processing. The wood dust problem focuses on the furniture, board and joinery industries, and at sawmills employing almost 30,000. According to the Centre for Occupational Safety, roughly half of these workers are exposed to wood dust.

The presently wood dust standard in Finland is 5 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air. However, studies suggest that concentrations of as little as 1 milligram per cubic meter already cause symptoms in the eyes, nose, throat, skin and lungs. The most serious consequence is cancer, while other serious diseases caused by wood dust include asthma, allergies and persistent rashes.

Although the Wood and Allied Workers' Union has long fought for a tightening in the standard to 1 milligram per cubic meter, the employers have so far managed to resist such reforms.

The Union's occupational health and safety secretary Pirkko Heikura told Trade Union News from Finland in May that a working group of experts and representatives of public authorities, employers and organised labour is once again examining the standard. "Rank and file pressure for an improved standard has steadily increased as details of the latest findings have reached workplaces," she noted.

Especially dangerous are jobs in which workers are exposed to a combination of risks such as wood dust, solvents, paints, hardeners and lacquers.

Pirkko Heikura reports that larger enterprises have invested more heavily than small businesses in technical protection against wood dust. One further problem is that young male workers often neglect to use protective masks.

The other large Nordic countries: Sweden, Norway and Denmark, currently apply a wood dust standard of 2 milligrams per cubic meter. Even here the trade unions are campaigning for the 1 milligram per cubic standard.