Basic Woodshop Safety
The purpose of this page is not to give an exhaustive list of things you need to keep on hand, but rather to be a general look at the key factors to ensuring a safe shop environment, and going home with all your fingers. There are five of these factors.
- Keep your work area clean and neat. Put your tools back where they belong when you are finished. Keep the floor clear of debris and sawdust. Don’t stretch extension cords across where you walk, unless it is temporary, then be sure to coil them back up and put them where the belong. Have a home for scrap and put it there when you generate it. Clean off your workbench at the end of each day. Make use of rolling carts for holding tools or unassembled parts of projects. Store flammable items in appropriate lockers and away from wood stoves or other sources of ignition. Make sure your shop is well lit and that there is room enough between tools and benches that there are no obstructed paths. Avoid entry by unauthorized persons, known entry and especially surprises. An unwanted onlooker making comments or grabbing and moving things is enough to drive anybody crazy. If they enter your safety zone while you are using machinery or even surprise you at the bench you have a hazard on your hands.
- Make sure that all of your tools are in proper working order. Fix broken machines or don’t use them. Make sure that the cords on your power tools and machines are not frayed or pulling out. Make sure that your tools are properly adjusted. Make sure the guards are properly in place and in good working order. If you have taken every precaution and you still have the potential of things flying in your face, use a face shield. I won’t even take a photo of a machine without a guard for photographic clarity. Those shots always have the machine off. And, if you have ever watched the New Yankee Workshop, there is a reason their lawyers make Norm recite his show opening mantra; it is truly important to read those directions that accompany your power tools, and non-power tools. Follow the safety rules carefully and you will reduce the risk of injury.
- Make use of added safety features as much as possible. Use push sticks to move materials through the saw and other machines. Construct several types of them as there are different requirements for a push stick depending on what you are pushing with it. For example, if you are flattening the face of a board when milling it four square, use a flat wide pusher that contacts the board with lots of surface area instead of a narrow one. I even use fluorescent orange spray paint to make mine easy to find. Make use of hold downs, and clamps to keep pieces safely in jigs. Use jigs. They aren’t just there to make difficult operations easier, they make dangerous operations more safe. Use feather boards to hold stock tight against fences. Build and make use of extra guards if you can. Make and use a crosscut sled for your table saw and mount a Plexiglas guard on it.
- Maintain your most important machine: you. Distraction is the cause of more accidents than probably any other factor. If you are hungry or sick, tired or angry, hot or thirsty, you are at risk. Don’t work if you are overly fatigued or not feeling up to your game. Attitude is extremely important also. Remember that woodworking is supposed to be fun. Isn’t that why you are doing it? Take a break when you get frustrated. Don’t work angry.
When you are set to work wood, put your safety glasses and hearing protection on. Use proper safety glasses with side shields, or goggles. Regular glasses ARE NOT safety glasses. Don’t use them for that purpose. Please, do not wear contact lenses in the shop. Depending on the type of machine you are using, use either ear plugs or muffs. Ear plugs are great for occasional use when using tools intermittently. However, if you are planing a lot of lumber or doing a lot of routing, invest in some good quality ear muffs. You won’t regret it. Invest in a good quality half mask respirator to clean the air you breath. A proper respirator is necessary even if you have the most advanced dust collection system. Some dust always escapes. Paper masks are all right for light use but if you are doing a lot of sanding, such as at the end of a project, they are not as good as a proper fitting, rubber or neoprene mask with cartridges. Wear short sleeves or other non-baggy clothing to reduce the chances of getting caught in a spinning blade. Take off your jewelry. Make sure you have adequate ventilation so that you can work comfortably and bring something to drink, non-alcoholic of course, in a container with a tight fitting lid.
- Just in case all else fails, be prepared for emergencies. Have a phone handy. If you don’t want to wire one into the shop, invest in a good cordless phone or a cell phone. Keep the phone numbers handy of the emergency services you might need, fire, ambulance, and hospital, and of a few people that you know would be handy and at home to help should something really bad go wrong. If someone is usually at home while you work, get one of those newer cordless intercom systems. I was sure happy to have one when I got hurt. If you are at home alone, it is a good idea to let someone know where you are. Have them phone you from time to time to check up on you if that is possible. Have a couple good ABC fire extinguishers handy and keep them fully charged. In the event that this isn’t enough, make sure you know the best escape routes from your shop. You need an eyewash station. You can pipe in water and buy a big expensive one if you want, but I have made do with the $10 squeezable bottle variety available in any safety supply store. Keep a gallon jug of distilled water, available from the drug store, on hand to fill it. If you ever have to use it, your eyes will thank you. Have a properly stocked first aid kit. In fact, you are better stocking your own than buying one. And, don’t bother with one of those piddly little pocket ones. Have a chair in the shop. Keep it near to both the phone and the first aid supplies.
Now I am not a doctor by any stretch of the imagination, but having been in the situation, here are some tips should the unthinkable happen.
- Don’t panic.
- Afraid of blood? Feeling lightheaded? Sit down. That is what the chair is for.
- No matter how hard you are trying not to look, you have to inspect the injury. How else will you know the right course of action.
- Remain calm and assess the situation. If you are prepared and keeping your head about you, the faster you will receive the attention you need.
Remember the basic tenets of the first aider; breathing, bleeding, broken bones. Unfortunately if you are alone, the first can’t be checked. This is why it helps to have someone know where you are. Use your best judgment when it comes to bleeding. You should know if the cut is deep enough or bleeding enough that you need to go to the doctor. Tourniquettes are out. They are no longer recommended except in the most dire of circumstances. You should always try to control the flow of blood with direct pressure. If you cut off your finger or hand, keep your head. Control the bleeding then try to get the amputated part on ice, or at least a cold pack. Then, dial 911. Bruising, swelling and intense pain are the signs of a fracture. Especially if alone, don’t try to handle this yourself – dial 911. If you inhaled something and are feeling poorly, move outside to fresh air, and if you don’t feel better in 10 minutes, call 911. If you have something embedded in your eye, call 911. If you are all alone and can’t drive yourself to the emergency room, call 911. If in doubt, call 911. Don’t take risks with your life. It isn’t worth it.
Use your head and prepare yourself for what could happen. And if something does happen, don’t panic! Make sure that you are in the right frame of mind for woodworking. Follow the rules that come with your tools, use the proper guards that they came with, wear your safety glasses and you are all set. The point is to have fun, so enjoy!
Thank you, Howard Ruttan