Canadian Woodworking

Workshop safety


When it comes to making your shop a safer place in which to work, one of the most important tools you can use is your brain.

Author: Carl Duguay

When it comes to making your shop a safer place in which to work, one of the most important tools you can use is your brain. It can help you identify hazardous situations before they happen, and develop a plan to minimize such situations. This means having an understanding of the tools you are about to use and the operations you are going to perform. If you are trying something new or complex, take the time to go through a dry run without power. This will help identify potential problems.

Keep your tools in excellent operating condition. Perform any routine maintenance called for in your owners manual and don’t defeat the safety measures provided by the manufacturer. If the safety devices are a problem, then replace them with a suitable alternative from a third party. Many woodworkers remove the splitter and blade guard from their table saws as they find the standard equipment on the saw is less than ideal in every day use. If you do this, replace it with one of the aftermarket versions; a splitter or riving knife behind the blade keeps the saw kerf from closing on the blade, preventing a violent kick back that could seriously injure the operator.

Worn or loose electrical connections cause heat. Inspect your extension cords and power cords on your tools for any evidence of wear and heat, replacing any that are questionable. If your area is prone to power outages consider investing in emergency lighting. These self-contained packs light instantly if the power goes out and will allow you to see while your machine coasts to a stop.

Anything that distracts your attention from your work creates the potential for an accident. Working when you are tired, sick or hungry increases your risk of having an accident. Don’t work if you are angry or stressed; your attention will be divided, putting you, and anyone else in your shop, at risk.

When you set up shop, consider the placement of equipment. Someone opening a door and walking into a board just as you feed it into a table saw could get seriously hurt. Plan your workflow carefully. Anticipate distractions before they happen. Have a plan to deal with visitors when you are using power tools.

Be prepared if the worst happens and you are injured while working. Have a phone in your shop in case you need to call for help. If wiring a phone into the shop isn’t possible, then invest in a good quality cordless set with a voice intercom function and keep the handsets charged. This will allow you to page others in the house if something should happen. Keep a list of emergency phone numbers by the phone. If you work alone in the shop, have a few people that you can call for assistance if required – have them phone you from time to time to check up on you if it’s warranted.

Have a first aid kit on hand in case something does happen. Invest in a good quality kit or assemble one yourself. If something does happen, DON’T PANIC. If you are bleeding, apply pressure to the cut to stop the bleeding and then dress the wound if you can. If you need assistance, call someone. Keep a chair in the shop close to the phone and sit down. Try to elevate the injury above your heart to reduce the bleeding. If you have suffered an unexpected amputation, remain calm, call 911, try to stop the bleeding and place the severed part on ice for surgery.

Personal Protective Equipment
There are certain basic safety items that no shop should be without. Flying objects can damage the human eye. For optimal safety match the style of eye protection to the task you are performing. Good quality safety glasses will protect the eye from the front and the sides. If you wear prescription glasses, there are models that fit over your existing glasses or you can order prescription safety glasses from your optician. If you don’t have a sink with running water in your shop, place an eye wash station near an exit door.

Most workshop activities produce dust or other airborne particles. There are two levels of protection for your lungs: a dust mask and a respirator. Dust masks are designed to keep the larger suspended particulate in the air from entering your lungs. If the dust you are creating is an irritant, or if you are using chemicals and some finishing supplies, use a respirator. These provide a better seal around the face and, depending on the cartridge used, will filter most harmful substances from the air you breathe. A respirator is a must when working with exotic species or spalted wood, as the dust from these can often be toxic. If you or someone in your family has an extreme allergy to nuts, bear in mind that the dust from working nut woods, such as walnut and oak, can be enough to cause serious health problems.

Unless you use only hand tools, some form of hearing protection is required in the shop. Manufacturers have used many innovative methods to reduce the noise that tools generate, but most are still loud enough to cause hearing damage. Damage to your hearing is cumulative, and can easily become permanent. You can use small disposable foam plugs or full protective earmuffs.

Keep some work gloves handy in the shop. These will protect your hands from slivers when handling rough lumber. The slivers for species such as cedar are irritating as well as painful. When applying finishes, wearing latex gloves not only makes clean up easier, it keeps the chemicals in the finishes from being absorbed into your system through the skin.

Safety glasses
Safety glasses
Hearing protectors
Hearing protectors

For a fire to start, there must be fuel, heat, and oxygen, and in all shops you will find all three of these elements. The obvious sources of fuel in a shop are wood, and all the nasty sawdust it creates. Don’t let piles of scrap wood accumulate under tools and keep in mind that sawdust can build up in unseen areas. If the point of connection to the power supply for the tool is running a little hot and it becomes covered by an insulating layer of sawdust, fire could result.

A kiln-dried board will burn easily when exposed to flame, but the shavings from that board will burn ferociously, almost instantly, if exposed to flame. If you use your planer shavings as mulch around the yard, they’re just as flammable outdoors.

Finishing supplies are another source of fuel, and some even provide their own heat. Before using any finishing product, read the label. There is NO WAY you can use a product safely without reading the instructions at least once. Modern finishes are a mixture of many ingredients. If there are known health hazards associated with a product, the information will be on the label.

Certain finishes generate a lot of heat as they cure. On a project this is not a concern, but leftover finish in a rag will generate enough heat that it will start to smoulder and potentially burst into flame. Always place any used rags in an airtight metal container, preferably partially filled with water, or hang them outside, one layer thick on a clothesline, until they are completely dry.

If you routinely keep a quantity of flammable finishing material and adhesives in your shop, a metal storage cabinet designed for the purpose is a wise investment. These cabinets feature a door that can be securely closed as well as a lip to contain any spilled fluids inside the cabinet. Placing all of these products inside this cabinet will slow the spread of any fire by limiting the addition of fuel from your finishing supplies to the fire. It may be tempting to use that old refrigerator as a storage cabinet but don’t do it. The plastic interior of the fridge is another source of fuel and it is not designed to contain any spilled fluids inside. Additionally, the seal on the fridge will concentrate any flammable vapours inside, and if it is plugged in to allow the light to operate, the switch could provide a spark for ignition.

Heat detectors are a better option for automated fire detection in a workshop than a smoke detector. The dust in the air will result in nuisance alarms and the sensing chamber will become obstructed and stop functioning on a standard smoke detector. Heat detectors usually offer dual protection. If the temperature in the area increases by a certain amount in a given length of time, or if it exceeds a preset limit (usually 135º or 165º Fahrenheit) it will trigger an alarm. You should have a minimum of one ABC type fire extinguisher. Hang this next to the exit door – you should not have to go into a burning room to retrieve it.

first alert Fire extinguisher

Sawdust is a health and fire hazard, and needs to be properly managed. The most effective method of control is to capture as much of the sawdust where it is created. For very small amounts of sawdust a shop vacuum will do. However, when operating shop machines you need an adequate dust collection system. A unit with a 1-micron filter, and with blast gates and pickups at each tool is the most effective method. Even the most efficient dust collection system won’t pick up the very fine dust suspended in the air. For this you need an ambient air filter, suspended from the ceiling. These filter and re-circulate the air in your shop, dramatically improving the indoor air quality, an important consideration if your shop is in the basement.

King Canada Ambient air filter
King Canada Ambient air filter

If you have a safety-related question, an excellent resource is the Canadian Woodworking forum. It’s free to join.  Scan the archives for past questions, or post a new one and wait for the responses to pour in. Help has never been so easy to get.

Last modified: September 29, 2023

Carl Duguay - [email protected]

Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.

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