Tips for woodworking fire safety
Woodworking shop fire

Fire is an ever-present danger in woodworking businesses and can create devastating losses.

On the Woodworking Network Podcast, we interviewed Michael Culbreth, loss control services consultant for Pennsylvania Lumberman’s Mutual talking about how to manage fire risks in the woodshop. Here is an edited transcript of the interview. To listen to the podcast, go to

Michael Culbreth
Michael Culbreth is a loss prevention specialist for Pennsylvania Lumberman’s Mutual.

WS. We’re going to talk about a really important issue today, fire safety in woodshops, but can I get a little bit of your background?

MC. I work for Pennsylvania Lumberman’s and we’re a wood products specialty carrier. So, I work with lots of saw mills, woodworking, wood components, cabinets, pallets, those sort of things over the years. I started with my company back in 2002, and the company actually started in 1895. I’ve had some opportunity to work with lots of woodworking, building material dealer type of accounts. My territory is North and South Carolina.

WS. I guess it’s no surprise that woodworking shops are regularly in the news with fires. What’s the most important fire prevention action that shops should take?

MC. Fire safety and loss prevention has to be integrated throughout the organization. Of course, it must start at the top and filter down from there, and it must be executed at all levels, supervisory roles. And in the companies that we work with it is very important because if the supervisor is on board, the loss prevention loss control programs will be much better executed, easier to manage and to work with.

But I think just setting the climate within a company is so critical. What’s important at the top eventually it’s going to filter down and be important throughout the company.

WS. Fires in wood manufacturing plants always make the news. But statistically how do woodworking plants compare to other manufacturing businesses for the frequency of fires?

MC. That’s a great question. Our company president has reminded us many times over the years that we operate in a severity niche, because of the nature of the operations that we insure with woodworking. 

You may have sawdust, chips, and bark, so you’ve got high combustibility. There’s always the potential for some things to happen and they’re not all good. There’s not a lot of room for error, so safety really needs to be built in, made a part of the job, not just something that employees do in addition to the main job. 

But you know, with the severity being what it is, we’ve learned a long time ago that in this kind of niche, that one year doesn’t make a trend. If we have one good year and losses seem to be down, well, that’s great. That’s good news. We know that the next year fires, wind and storms could be wreaking havoc.

We know we have to think long range and be well funded for some of those severe losses that can come around.

WS. Sometimes with the fire in a woodworking plant, the fire comes with a bit more spectacular danger of combustible dust explosions. What kind of advice do you have to address that particular hazard?

MC. Combustible dust is so important because the more combustible dust is, the greater the fire, the explosion potential is there. A lot of our customers, of course, they’re generating huge amounts of combustible dust day in and day out.

I used to work for a manager a long time ago. He said, Michael, he said, “When you go out to a woodworking operation, he said, it’s my thought that you should be able to tell in the first five minutes you’re there, who’s managing, are the people managing the sawdust, or is the sawdust managing the people?” And that always kind of stuck with me.

We’ve got to have strong housekeeping programs. I look at housekeeping as you know, when we go out on a visit and I’m making site visits to some of our policyholders, how that operation looks at that point in time.

That is one factor. But I’m a little more interested in what’s the program behind that picture that I’m seeing that day on the walkaround. In other words, if it looks great and there’s very minimal sawdust chips, bark scrap accumulations, naturally I’ll brag on the account, and that’s wonderful. But then my next questions usually are, tell me a little bit about how day in and day out, week in and week out, you manage the sawdust.

Do they have a a cleanup schedule at the end of each day, last 30 minutes, last hour. Some of our sawmills have an evening cleanup crew that comes in just to do the cleanup. Some mills will have a more comprehensive cleanup, at the end of the week.

In addition to those daily and weekly activities, there’ll be some non-routine schedules that need to come into play. How often do we clean overhead ceiling fixtures and lights where dust can layer over time and began to build up.

WS. A lot of people don’t understand that, that the dust, especially the fine dust when it’s in the air, it’s just like fuel in a carburetor. It’s creating an air and combustible mixture that that can be set off really dramatically.

MC. The fuel for the fire is there and once we get it airborne, if there’s a an incident of some sort where some of that layered dust is dislodged and gets suspended in the air, just off the bat, we’ve gone from a fire hazard to an explosion hazard.

We focus a lot on the dust collection systems that we see in a lot of our mills where they’ll have an outside cyclone and outside pressurized bag house system that collects and filters that sawdust.

So those are a big piece of the puzzle, because we’re automatically collecting a good portion of that sawdust and exhausting it to the outside.

WS. What about spark detection systems in dust collection systems? Do you recommend those? And does that do anything to help a plant on its insurance premiums?

MC. Absolutely. It’s a best practice fire safety precaution to have. You could have a piece of wood that jams on a machine and the machine action generates some friction and some sparks that get exhausted into the system.
[Spark detection has] infrared detectors that will see those sparks and then you have water suppression nozzles downstream from there before the collector. The whole idea is that system will identify those sparks, extinguish them before it has a chance to cause a fire or explosion hazard in the bag house or the cyclone.

WS. I think a lot of people, they put in their dust collection system and it’s, sort of, once installed and forget it.

MC. It does happen that way, unfortunately, sometimes. But then the testing and the maintenance are just beginning because, for it to be dependable and reliable, that testing and maintenance, cleaning those detectors, cleaning the water strainers at the nozzles. It’s just so vital for it to be able to function when it’s really needed well.

WS. I think a lot of companies don’t realize that a loss prevention expert connected to their insurance company can be on their side. They treat an inspection from you guys as akin to an OSHA inspection. But really you’re on their side trying to prevent something from happening.

MC. Exactly right. We look at it as a partnership. I try to remind our policyholders and our customers as we’re first beginning to work together and build a relationship that we’re not the regulatory side of the house. We want it to be a partnership. We don’t carry a badge. We’re there to hopefully help build and reinforce their loss control measures and prevent losses, which we hope over time will have a positive impact to them and us.

WS. We’re talking about wood and wood dust, but you know, most of these companies have finishing areas too. There are fire hazards that need to be checked in those areas too.

MC. Absolutely. We’re looking at how they’re set up for spray finishing. Do they have a standard spray booth with exhaust ventilation, automatic fire extinguishing system, covered metal containers to get their rags into at the end of each day. Again, back to spontaneous combustion. Housekeeping is very important. 

We’re beginning to see over time, a few more accounts that are headed toward nonflammable finishing, which, from the fire safety standpoint is great news, but there’s still a lot of flammable finishing.

WS. I think the bottom line that we’re all coming back to is what you said toward the beginning of our talk is the idea of having a philosophy committed to a clean shop and a safe shop.

MC. We haven’t touched on electrical fire safety. Do they bring in outside licensed electricians to do most of the electrical work? Or is there a qualified person in house that does some of that?

And we believe in doing infrared thermography scans. We have infrared cameras. And long as someone can open up the energized panel boxes while they’re operating, we can check for hotspots to see if there’s any overheating inside the panel boxes. So, to me, that’s a great fire safety loss prevention tool.

We’ve had situations where we’ve come across some really hazardous situations in the panel boxes. We had no way of knowing had we not done an infrared scan.

WS. That was something I wasn’t familiar with. Is there anything else that you think is important?

MC. What’s the old saying? Sometimes what’s expected is not what happens, what’s inspected is actually what happens. If things are being inspected, typically they’re going to be managed well. If they’re not inspected, maybe not so much.

Listen to full interview with Michael Culbreth on the Woodworking Network Podcast at


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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.