Better Safe than Gory

As a builder, your body is an essential part of your business. That’s why the prevailing attitude towards safety equipment is so puzzling. If you accidentally slice, crunch or mutilate yourself, your company’s bottom line suffers. So does your body. No argument there. But something happens when most guys step out of the work truck in the morning. They get frantic and careless. And bullet proof, or so they think. But the bottom line is ruthlessly simple: you may be only one accident away from financial failure (or at least a surprising amount of physical pain). So why aren’t you protecting yourself?

I divide my time between working in my woodworking shop, putting up buildings and writing about both. And while I haven’t always used safety equipment as diligently as I should (who has?), I’ve learned my lessons relatively painlessly. And a big part of that lesson is getting serious about a few basic pieces of safety equipment.

Safety is Cool (Sort Of)

It wasn’t so long ago that safety equipment sucked. It looked stupid, it felt worse and it didn’t always work. But things are better these days. A lot better. So why gamble your business because you didn’t like the feel of that pair of safety glasses you tried on in 1986?

After I had a doctor clamp my eyelid open as he plucked a piece of hammer-driven, galvanized nail head from my cornea, I decided to re-evaluate my criteria for wearing safety glasses. Before, I used to wear them only when my eyes were obviously in danger. Now they go on for almost everything. And to tell you the truth, I don’t even mind. One reason is because I toss out the silly safety glasses that come with power tools (allegedly designed only to satisfy tool company liability lawyers) replacing them with several good pairs that I take seriously. My favourite pair have adjustable arms (you can tweak both arm length and angle), and they’re so comfortable you can barely tell they’re on. You can also get tinted safety glasses, safety glasses with built-in bi-focal lenses, and safety glasses to keep out dust. When mine aren’t on my face, they’re in a leather case I made. It keeps them as clean and scratch-free as possible.

As far as I can tell, the world still waits for the ultimate ear protection. Sure, there are effective items out there, but every one has their own particular drawback. That’s why I keep three different kinds of hearing protection on hand for different jobs.

If I’m just being noisy in short bursts, then my hearing protection of choice is a pair of pro-grade muffs. I scatter four pairs in my shop and amongst my toolboxes, so at least one is handy all the time. But if I’m wearing ear muffs long enough to make the sides of my head hurt because they’re pressing safety glass arms into my skull, then it’s definitely time for ear plugs.

The most effective I find are the ones made of yellow foam. As long as you roll them up tight, then get them right down into your ear canal (holding them there until they expand), foam plugs block sound better than anything else. Trouble is, they’re also a pain to install. That’s why I only use foam plugs for long-duration jobs — like running lots of parts through my table saw, or drilling an hour’s worth of holes with my rock drill.

Right now I’m experimenting with a pair of ZEM hearing protectors. They’re supposed to cut noise back by 26 dB (that’s as much as my pro-grade muffs), while still letting you hear normal conversation more-or-less normally. So far, I like these units. They fold up when you need to tuck them in your pouch, too.

Hands and Knees

I’m not crazy about work gloves, but when I have to put them on, I want more than just some floppy things from the gardening aisle. Form-fitting gloves with Velcro cuffs are the ticket.

Another piece of safety equipment that’s on trial with me is chain mail gloves. They turn what would normally be a deep hand wound into a minor scratch. Or nothing at all. And having personal experience of how fast a deep hand wound gets infected, I’m thinking that the knights of old might have something to offer.

Are knee-pads really considered safety equipment? I don’t know, but who cares? If you’re tiling or putting down a lot of deck boards, why pummel yourself into an early knee replacement operation? I’ve used the all-foam pads for years, but the new, hard-faced designs work better.

Breathing Easier

I know one professional builder who died from work-induced dust exposure, and three more who can’t come within 20 feet of cedar because of allergies they’ve developed. They’d want you to know these three facts about dust and your lungs.

Fact#1: Airborne wood dust causes cancer. It’s a proven fact, and it applies to you. Wood dust is on the US government’s list of known carcinogens for a reason.

Fact#2: It’s the wood dust you can’t see that’ll kill you. Particles as small as 1/60 the diameter of a human hair remain airborne for hours after you shut off a saw.

Fact#3: You’re probably exposed to wood dust every day.

All this is why you need to take lung protection seriously. But that’s harder than it looks – perhaps harder than getting serious about any other safety habits. Delayed consequences are the reason why. You can eat dust for 20 years and nothing happens except a runny nose. Then you develop a cedar allergy, then shortness of breath, then something worse that won’t ever go away. Once lung damage is done, there’s no going back.

Unless you have the same nose surgeon as Michael Jackson, regular dust masks aren’t much good. Do you really want to rely on the precarious sal created by a thin metal clip bent around the sides of your nose to protect you from a known carcinogen? My beak is way too big for that anyway, and it’s why I pay a couple of cents more for good dust masks — the ones with pleated sides that cup the front of your face. Besides working way better, they’re more comfortable, too.

Are you ever in doubt about the purity of what you’re sanding, demolishing or sawing? Is it CCA lumber? Lead-based paint? Nasty clouds of moldy bat crap in an old-house reno? Keep a respirator in your tool kit. They’re hot and uncomfortable and they look stupid, but so does an oxygen bottle with tubes going up your nose.

If physical safety were your primary concern in life, you’d probably be an accountant, not a contractor. But on the other hand, just thinking safe doesn’t cut it, either. One slip-up and you might just become an accountant by default. The real issue with safety equipment isn’t about eliminating all risks. It’s about tilting the tables in your favour. And it’s surprising how much a little bit of foam, plastic and metal can do to make you a whole lot luckier.

My great grandfather was a British-trained cabinetmaker, working injury-free for his whole 40-year career. Well, almost his whole career. Five days before his retirement date, he sliced off three fingers on a table saw. But if he’d been working with the world’s safest saw, he’d have been able to play much better baseball with his grand kids.

A few years ago the tool world was abuzz with something called the SawStop. It was a table saw safety system designed to halt a rotating blade and retract it milliseconds after touching any kind of meat. You could push a wiener into the spinning blade and only scratch the surface. The blade halts in a quarter of a revolution, and drops below the table automatically in 5 milliseconds. But the product seemed to fall flat as table saw manufacturers everywhere refused to build it into their machines, despite the fact that it worked flawlessly. In response, the guys at SawStop went right ahead and built their own table saw to market the safety device.

The SawStop cabinet saw is now on the market and has won awards from a handful of woodworking magazines. It was even voted one of the best inventions of 2006 by Time magazine. A contractor saw is currently being designed and tested.

Posted on November 19th, 2010

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