Nov 18 2010
Safety is something we should keep in mind always when we are in the shop. The same is true for hobbies and vocational tasks. While I realize there is an established woodworking safety week established in early May, the prime time for most woodworkers to be in their shops is right now, because the holidays are upon us and many are working hard to complete the hand made gifts they want to give to loved ones this year.
Right now seems like an excellent time to remind us all about being safe in the shop.
Power tools and shop machines are usually some kind of rotating oscillator, with some kind of tooling attached that can cut the materials we work with. This means they can cut us too, or hurl things at us. Fortunately, there are several layers of protection for use with these tools. Guards, shields jigs and fixtures that shield us and guide the tools or the work, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that we can wear, as well as safe practices and procedures for using them, allow us to be artistic and productive without harm to ourselves.
Hand tools are sharp cutting edges, coupled with hand-eye coordination and physical force applied by the user. If there is a safety issue, usually it is the fact that the tools are dull, or just sharp enough to cut the user, but too dull to do the work, and that causes injury from tools that slip. Other times it is because we are not mindful of where we place our hands, how we use proper posture for the task and technique or the effort we apply.
If we remember that a high level of sharpness, proper fixturing of the work, and putting our hands on the hand holds, handles, and behind the cutting edges, we can develop practices that keep us safe from harm. Experience will remind us that sharp tools push easier than dull ones, and excessive force needing applied by the tool user should serve as reminder, if not warning. The rest is really about finesse, and finesse is not about trying too hard.
Often times, hand tools offer us a safer way of working on small, short, and thin work pieces, when compared to woodworking machines and power tools. Any machinist will tell you that in working metal, secure fixturing is everything. Woodworkers often have a choice between moving the tool or the material, and often with minimal fixturing. We as the users of these tools have to keep all the balls in the air to achieve fit and finish as well as remain safe through the process, and it really does come down to the thought process first and how we carry out that thought process second. Success is possible!
Usually the most dangerous thing in the shop is the person performing work there. Yes, that does mean us. If we don’t pay rapt attention to what we are doing most every moment, the potential for injuries can cross the line and bite us. We don’t have to be interfaced with a tool. Is the path we will carry something large through, and which will obstruct our vision, clear and free of trip hazards before we life and carry? Do we lift with our legs and not our back? Do we keep three points of contact when we are on a ladder?
In practice, our minds assess many things in a moment, and dismiss them if they look usual. Usually if things look acceptable we turn our focus elsewhere, particularly if we surmise what we looked at seems to have a low potential for needing us to revisit it with our attention again soon.
For instance, this is the difference between crossing a street when there are few cars or when there are many. Maybe we know the power cord to our circular saw or router is in a safe place where it will not become a bother. Maybe the power cord will be a bother and we can’t fully mitigate this so we must plan to manage this as we work. We often scale up our awareness as required for the situation. When we are not as familiar with a situation, we are better off to scale up our awareness.
This also means we need to know and be aware of what not to pay attention to while we are focused on a task. This is a balancing act that we learn mostly from practice. I know that it sounds odd to point out that we need to know what not to pay attention to. When you are in the moment that requires rapt attention, distractions to our focus and how we manage distractions become important. We have to mentally override a lot of things that come to mind or call for our attention until we finish a process. Sharp tooling is not artificially intelligent. It is not aware of human proximity. We humans own the entire safety process. Awareness is your responsibility, always. I am saying we have to keep our attention in the game until the procedure is complete. Inattention is unforgiving.
Normally after we leave the shop we think we are safe. It’s true, Most usually we probably are, but will someone else who is not as familiar with the potential hazards be? There are still things like shop cleanliness, trip hazards, making sharp tooling safe by putting it away, unplugging it, making sure rags used for finishing are outside the shop away from the house in a bucket of water.
The same focus that you put into doing your best work is the same focus you need to put into keeping yourself safe. Safety is not one thing, but many things in ensemble. It is knowing what to do and how to do it to keep one’s self from harm. Keeping as much of all this in mind as we can, all at once as we work is Mindfulness.
If we practice using safe procedures routinely, and become accustomed to our awareness as we use them, they become good working habits. Finally, we must promise ourselves to always follow our thought out safe practices.
When moments arise that our mind or self talk says to us, “Oh, I can just hold this in my hand and pare a quick slice off”, or “Gosh, I don’t want to put the sled on the table saw for that little cut”, or “I know this piece is small, but I can route that off if I take a small slice”, please know that these are prime examples of wrong headed thinking and are persuasive. These kinds of thoughts intend to override safe practices to save time and bother, but they will never ever protect us from harm.
We should consider for ourselves all the times our minds offered us this alternative reasoning. If we took our minds up on that alternative, and we managed to complete the task without harm to ourselves or damage to the project, then we should also know we took risks, and got lucky. Safe practices are all about the mitigation of risks, and not relying on any luck whatsoever.
My personal hope for you is a long and happy tenure as a woodworker. If you find cause to consider deeply, how to safely proceed with any woodworking process, I’d consider this a good thing. If after considering things, you cannot seem to come up with a way to do things that you feel mitigate the dangers, then don’t proceed. There is no harm or foul in asking for help. If you have questions about how to improve safety in a woodworking process, please feel free to contact me with your concern and perhaps together we can come up with a safer way, even if it means doing something completely differently, or maybe not doing it at all. Remember, one single unsafe moment is all it takes, and that is worth keeping in mind, always.
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