Shop safety is the single most essential thing in a shop. As everyone knows, woodworking can be dangerous, but if you follow some basic guidelines, you will keep yourself safe.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
PPE includes all the equipment you should wear to keep yourself safe. This equipment includes things like safety glasses, hearing protection, dust mask, and gloves. You also need to look into what kind of PPE should be used with specific machinery. I was always taught never to wear gloves when running machines. This way, a glove couldn’t get snagged and pull a hand into the blade. But gloves can be great when you’re piling or moving lumber to prevent slivers. Another piece of PPE that isn’t worn all the time is chaps. If you own a chainsaw, it’s not a bad idea to have a pair of chaps to protect your legs. If you aren’t sure what kind of PPE you should be using, check out the owner’s manual for your equipment. Most owner’s manuals list the PPE that should be used when operating.
Know When to Use Blade Guards
Using a blade guard is a debatable topic among the woodworking community. Some people say using the blade guard makes a task more dangerous, while others never take the guard off. In my opinion, both of these statements can be true. I use the guard if the task allows me to. What I mean by this is if I’m ripping boards to width or crosscutting with the miter gauge, I’ll use the blade guard. But if I’m at the table saw cutting a dado, tenon, using the crosscut sled, or ripping narrow pieces where the guard is too big and in the way, I take the guard off. In these cases, using the guard is more dangerous and, in some cases, very difficult to effectively guard the blade.
Note: The riving knife isn’t the guard. Always use the riving knife when making through cuts. The riving knife prevents the board from pinching the blade.
Be Aware of Kickback
Kickback is sudden and forceful recoil. For example, when you shoot a gun, the gun kicks back into your shoulder. Similar things can happen in the shop. Some machines kickback, and others don’t. A band saw, for example, is a machine that does not kickback. Table saws, planers, and jointers are the most common machines to kickback. When these machines kickback, they will try to throw the board back at you. A table saw will also try to kickback and scraps or trim pieces.
So how do you avoid this? First, you want to position yourself, so if the machine does kickback, you are out of the way. Never stand directly behind the blade. Always stand to the side. The other tip is to keep a firm grip on the piece you are feeding through the machine. A loose grip is a higher risk for kickback.
Stay Focused When Running Equipment
It’s easy to get distracted while you’re in the shop. But as you can imagine, this can be very dangerous. Certain tasks don’t require much brainpower like sanding. But most operations need you to stay focused on what’s going on. Not only do you put yourself in danger when you get distracted, but it also causes you to make more mistakes.
So if you notice your attention being somewhere besides the task you are doing, step back and take a break. Take the time to let your mind settle down so you can go back to your work safely.
Keep Your Fingers Tucked
Unfortunately, a fair amount of woodworkers have a missing finger or two. So you always want to be aware of your hand/finger placement. I was taught always to have my fingers tucked rather than keeping my fingers straight. Keeping your fingers tucked, keeps your fingers further away from the blade and closer to your body. It also helps keep your fingers safe during times of kickback. If the machine kicks back, your hand would already be pointing backward. This would only cause your hand to be pulled back with the board. But if the fingers are straight when the machine kicks back, your finger would have to be pulled 180° in the opposite direction. Depending on where you’re at in the cut or the placement of your hand, this could cause your finger to pass over the blade.
Use Push Sticks/Blocks
Similar to keeping your fingers tucked, don’t let your fingers get too close to the blade. To avoid this, you want to use push sticks or push blocks when the blade gets too close for comfort. What’s too close for comfort? It depends on the person, but trust me, you’ll know. I’ll like to always keep push sticks in reach by the machines that use them. That way, if I ever need one, its right there, and I’m not making a cut I’m not comfortable with.
I always have a push stick by the table saw and still have a push stick and push blocks by the jointer. In my opinion, most people are too comfortable with their jointer. When using a jointer, you always pass over the cutting area. All too often, you hear of people taking a little chunk of meat off their pinky fingers or thumbs. The rule I follow is to keep my hands 4” above the cutting area. So if I’m jointing the edge of an 8” wide board, I won’t use a push stick. But if I’m jointing the face of a 4/4 board, I most definitely will use a push stick and a push block.
NEVER Touch/Try to Stop a Moving Blade
This might seem like common sense, but NEVER touch or try to stop a moving blade. That blade and machine are made to cut through wood. And the last time I checked, wood is a ton harder and more durable than human flesh. You don’t want to try to stop the blade either. Sticking something at a moving blade that is trying to power down is just a dangerous situation. Some machines are designed with brakes, and in these cases, using the brake is more than appropriate. Just be patient and what for the blade to stop itself. It might be painful to wait, but I can guarantee that it won’t be nearly as painful as cutting your finger off.
Disconnect From the Power Source During Changeovers
Whenever you are working on the blade, whether you’re changing the setup or changing the blade, it’s always good practice to disconnect the machine from the power source. These days most machines have safety switches where a safety key needs to be in place for the machine to power on. This is convenient if the main power source is hard to get to. Whenever I rely on the safety switch, I always try to turn the machine on, to double-check.
You can also disconnect the machine from the primary power source. Sometimes machines don’t have a safety key, or the safety key is a pain to use, so just unplugging the machine is the simplest. Either option will guarantee that the machine won’t accidentally turn on while working on the blade.
Don’t Do Anything You Are Not Comfortable With
At the end of the day, if you don’t feel comfortable doing something, don’t do it. Just don’t risk it. Take a step back and see if there’s another way you can get the job done. Safety always comes first in the shop. Nothing is more important than keeping yourself safe!