Everything can be taken to an extreme. We could have so much safety gear in our shop and about our bodies that it becomes (ironically) impossible to work, or we can live in a world of Victorian reckless abandon and not care how many fingers we lose. I can not count the scars on my hands with mine and your fingers and toes, but it doesn’t mean I’m careless… necessarily. My point is, you don’t have to hurt yourself while you’re working unless you believe in Keanu Reaves in The Replacements, “…Chicks dig scars.”
Ask Tweetie here and he’ll tell you, “Accidents happen.” But which of them where careless, needless or just an accident that could have happened at any time? I was walking through Walmart one day (which is NOT often) and I happened across a worker on a Scissor lift; one of these things. I noticed that he had his full harness on, over his hips and midsection, and I even took the time to notice that it was worn correctly with all the straps fastened tightly. No problem. There was a significant amount of cord in a bundle behind him, so I assumed he would be replacing a light, or something. As I milled around, boredom and curiousity getting the better of me, I saw him steady himself and jerk the lever forward twice, three times, four times, and stop. His feet were, maybe, a meter off the ground, and as he turned around to grab a box on the lift with him, he kicked at least three meters of harness cable onto the floor to make room. The harness that was attached to the lift, and attached to him, was now in a rumpled pile on the concrete floor next to the lift. I’d like you to take a moment and contemplate the safety message there.
A second story was when I was working at Kent Building Supply. That building had to have at least a 10m roof (32′) and great steel I-Beams held lumber aloft on huge cantilevered shelves (something akin to the image here). The floor was cut blocks of cement, and a tumble from a third of that height would mean certain death and probably a few days off work in the meantime. The number of times I’ve seen people scrambling across those lumber racks like gibbons, without hard hate, gloves, fall-arrest harnesses, nothing. Well not nothing, per say, he WAS wearing his reflective vest!
My point is, that safety infractions are our own responsibility, and we cannot rely on others to be safe FOR us; though their carelessness can endanger others, more on that later. Yes, always wear fall-arrest gear when working at heights, but no need to attach a 4-meter length of line to prevent a 2-meter drop. It only becomes a tripping hazard. Only wear safety goggles if they don’t impair your vision, and only wear gloves if they don’t impair your grip. Rule of thumb here is not to just WEAR equipment, but wear the RIGHT equipment. Make sure it fits, make sure it’s comfortable, make sure it’s reliable.
It doesn’t take long watching youtube woodworking channels like those I’ve listed here, before you begin to ask yourself, “Where’s his tablesaw blade guard? Why isn’t he wearing gloves? Where is his hearing protection?” I’d like to take a page from many woodworker’s advise, but most notably the reason I respect John Heisz so much; He has told his audience, on a number of occasions, (I paraphrase) “I take risks because I know what I’m comfortable with. Safety is on you, not me. You have to judge for yourself and not wait to be told to work safely.” I believe him. Like the adage, “If you need the threat of hell to be a man of conscience, you’re a terrible human being already.” Sometimes, you shouldn’t HAVE to be told.
That’s wonderful, but not many of us have mobile scaffold services available in our woodworking shops, except for Matthius Wandel, who actually DOES; and a cool Video, by the way. Wearing chain maille gloves while working around the table saw or wearing a face-shield on a helmet at all times would prove cumbersome and dangerous. The best protection I can advise is caution. Use a push-stick around the table saw, wear a face shield only when you expect debris to come directly at your face, like working a lathe. The plastic shields over table saws can sometimes prove to be a hassle, but it’s personal decision-making that determines whether you remove it or not.
Above all else, keep your floors clean. Shavings and sawdust on the floor is an abrasive. Constant running around can actually polish the floors of your shop smooth, and any spilled liquid can turn wooden floor into a slip-and-slide. Keeping shavings away from moving parts can prevent jams, and dust-collection can prevent the initiation of a power tool from kicking out an unexpected cloud of dust, resin, or even mildew into your eyes. Many woodworkers advocate powered systems for dust collection, like cyclones or industrial vacuum cleaners with devoted channels and locks that attach to tools. That isn’t necessarily the only solution, but resting your eyes and/or fingers for ten minutes every few hours to brush/dust off your equipment onto the floor, sweep it into a corner and address the mess safely. Then get back to work. This reduces eye-strain at focusing at one distance for too long, as well as keeping you from hurting yourself on debris. I would say that general “dust collection” is very important, either through automatic or manual means.
I covered lighting in a previous article, and I cannot stress this enough. Dark corners in your shop can be dangerous. They can be forgotten and they force your eyes to contrast light and darkness which can exhaust your eyes. Keep your shop evenly lit, with task-lighting on minute work like carving, engraving, marquetry and finished work; anything up-close. Too much light can be dangerous, too, so do the appropriate research and use adjustable solutions where possible. Remember that as you age your eyes age with you, and you may not have the eyes you did when you were 18. Treat them well and keep your future in focus (giggle).
Along with dust collection, I need to mention ventilation. It’s bad enough with sawdust being under foot, but being in your lungs is worst. Coal Miners called it “black lung”, but it’s generally a bad idea to breathe anything that your lungs were not designed to deal with. Smoke, sawdust, toxic vapours from finishing, these things can kill you. Keep some ventilation, air circulation and controlling the room humidity wouldn’t be a bad idea either. The closer to ideal conditions you can manage, the better. Also remember that hand tools tend to create larger particles than do power tools, and can be a little easier on the lungs for smaller shops, and be a space saver. Power sanders, table saws, router tables, thickness planers, all create clouds of dust and chippings that can damage your breathing, not to mention the stuff that comes from paint, paint thinners, treatments and finishes. Some people experiment with wood aging using ammonia vapours. These things are also dangerous, and use breathing apparatus as if your life depended on it, and of course it does! I’ve come to trust Marc Spagnuolo (The Wood Whisperer) after his many years of providing much free (and some paid) content for our woodworking learning. His articles are great and on the perfect woodworking respirator is perfect, and you should definitely check it out.
You might not think it, but shop temperature is also very important for safety. Not only will your wood glue freeze and be rendered practically useless, but cold conditions can numb the hands, slow reflexes, and make your work uncomfortable. Too hot and you perspire, wood and tools can sweat making work dangerous, and also increase fatigue when outside your ideal temperature zone. This is also accurate for humidity. Too dry or too damp and work becomes dangerous or uncomfortable. This hobby is meant to be enjoyable, and a little extra planning, effort or money invested in making it more comfortable also makes it more enjoyable and safer. A properly sealed building and a dehumidifier can work wonders, though can be a little expensive to run in an oceanfront property like mine.
Distractions can be a huge issue. Playing the radio or music often helps get me through the day, but having too many people in a shop can lead to mistakes. Your eyes need to be on your work, not the friend you invited to flirt with, and not the toddler who is eager to find some trouble, while you’re feeding boards through a jointer. I often discuss teaching people in my shop, but we focus on one thing at a time; I assist them, standing nearby but not in the way, or they observe me while I perform a task. All sensitive, delicate or dangerous work should best be done in relative isolation to avoid the risk of distraction and severed digits.
Sharpness is HUGE. Dull tools are dangerous. Keep your saw blade teeth sharp, your chisels honed and your knives stropped to ensure you don’t lose a finger. There have been many articles and videos on the concept of “scary sharp”. Stumpy Nubs did a great video on the topic. Ever needed a chisel so sharp it could literally cut the tension? Ever want a knife that could shave the hair off your arm without leaving razor burn? That’s scary sharp. It can take a number of increments to hone to that measure of acuteness, can be a holy pain to maintain and a nightmarish experience to repair once you strike a nail with your #4 Stanley Hand Plane after two hours fixing the last ding, but sharp tools are worth it. As my latest experience with a chisel can show you, sharp tools have their risks, but that was simple carelessness and my own addled brain that caused that minor laceration (which is healing nicely, thanks). I could say the same for kitchenware, but that’s for a different blog.
Don’t forget protective clothing! Gloves are great, but a steel-nosed boot is great for deflecting that Greene & Greene coffee table you just let slip off the bench onto your foot, but a steel shank is also great when clambering through a dumpster or wood pile attempting to scrounge some free pallets from a local (and informed, and willing) donor. High boots with cushioned insoles and ankle support can keep you on your feet all day, though a properly built floor (NOT a bare concrete slab) can also avoid ankle, knee and hip fatigue in a similar way. Interlocking mats are expensive but nice, even a layer of rigid insulation and boards can keep the cold away from your toes and the shock off your joints. What about MORE than your face, hands and feet? Leather Aprons, not only a chic fashion accessory for any garage, but offer great protection against splashes and slashes alike. They are functional, too, for holding tools and resting uncomfortable objects against your body while carrying or lifting (with your knees!)
More a measure of stamina and patience than anything else, shop organization also plays a part in how safely you can putter throughout your day. Being able to have all the tools that you need for a particular task around your particular bench, or to have that bench built with a recess to store your tools below the work surface, will prevent you from dropping your piece on a chisel or a plane, watching a two-week Greene & Green chair tumble to the floor as you leap towards the table saw your friend is currently using to catch it. You could see where this is going. Probably to the hospital, actually. I’m an advocate of “dedicated storage”, like a wall-mounted shelf with individual slots for individual tools. Each of your wrenches or ratchets has a numbered place, every hand plane has a tailor-fit slot it slides into that could not accept a different model, your set of chisels is numerically organized so you know when your 19mm dual-bevel full-tang chisel is missing, that sort of thing. Now you don’t have to be as anal as me (moi?) but it’s always a good idea to take 5-10 minutes out of each our to get up, walk around, and stretch your legs. Go have a coffee, let the dog out, use the restroom, sweep the floor, put away your tools, wash your hands. Anything to keep you from spending too-much time on your task. I only ever work for 30-40 minutes at a time, and then go distract myself for a few minutes, and go back to work. It may turn an 8-hour work day into 10-hours, but I often don’t want to quit when I do. The time taken to clean up a little, tidy and sort some tools can be both a welcome break and a safety message to yourself, “Look at the dust I’ve collected!” or “Did I really need seven different chisels for that dovetail?” These little, controlled distractions can keep you focused and not let you get so lost in your work that you pile the dangers around you.
That being said, let’s play a game. Feel free to politely remind me how many of my own rules (Suggestions?) I break in the run of a project. Remind me that, “That looks like more than 45 minutes of shavings, there Robin.” or “Did you really use seven chisels to make that dovetail?” You hereby have my permission to softly rib. We all know the rules, and we all inch towards the red line, though some of us find the hazard markers and pitch a tent.
The bottom line is this: Safety is YOUR problem, just as much as it is mine. However, when you’re in the emergency room getting your fingers reattached to your hand, you no longer have the right to tell the surgeon, “But that wicked-awesome-amazing, handsome, charming, brilliant and most importantly modest blogging woodworker, Robin Gosse, didn’t have a guard on his table saw!” I’ll have no pity, and when I do it, you have permission to laugh and send me get-well cards.