A Quick Conversation About Shop Safety

Article - November 1, 2007

I have to say that one of the best aspects of this website is the comments section. If you aren’t reading that, you are really missing out on some great information and some interesting conversation. Almost every post I make winds up having some sort of clarification or expansion of an idea that can be found there. So check it out. Even if someone says something I don’t agree with, it calls attention to an event or a technique and raises the casual reader’s awareness and perhaps makes them think, “hmm, maybe I should pay attention to that so I can be informed and make the right decision when the time comes”.

Our most recent video, Episode 31- Pencil Holders, has spurred a little conversation about safety. Specifically, a few of my operations in the video were called into question. And honestly, I welcome this. But few topics polarize a room of woodworkers quite like safety. OK, well maybe food safe finishes and left-tilt vs right-tilt are worse topics. But you get the idea. Now I planned on writing a response in the comment section, but I thought this was interesting enough that it deserved its own post. So let’s get it on!

No matter what I do, or how many precautions I take, I will always do things that some folks will deem, “not safe”. Although I strive to show you guys the safest techniques possible, it is inevitable that what I see as “safe enough” will not be up to someone else’s standards. This is something I have some to terms with a while ago and it is very important for people to question my methods. That’s how we learn. That’s how I learn. But all of this safety talk has inspired one of my borderline philosophical rants.

Why do people see things differently when it comes to safety? I mean, something is either dangerous, or it isn’t. Something is either safer, or it isn’t. Smoking is bad for you, so I dont do it. Skydiving is dangerous, so I dont do it. But other people do both and dont think twice about it. Eating fatty foods is bad for you, but I still do it. And I have seen more accidents on the freeway here in Phoenix than I care to remember, yet I still drive on it nearly every day. So what is it inside our heads that determines what is too dangerous and what is just a calculated risk worth taking.

Technically speaking aren’t we putting our lives in our hands every time we walk in the shop?? We can focus on the individual safety details all we want, but the bottom line is we are all taking that calculated risk just by entering our shops. But the reward of the craft is large enough that most of us don’t think of our shops as inherently dangerous. Its the individual tool and specific operations that pose the real threat. Yet still, some of us don’t even see that. Ever been to an average small professional woodworking shop? Many of you would probably have a heart attack if you saw what goes on there. But that’s what these guys are comfortable with and used to. They are a bit more jaded and don’t see the associated risks of doing things like using a tablesaw without a splitter. Heck, even our TV idols like David Marks and Norm make a choice NOT to use a splitter.

So here’s my little analysis. When it comes to woodworking, there are probably just as many hobbyists as there are professionals in the world. But the online community is dominated by and caters to hobbyists. So in many cases, we are bombarded with safety information and what sometimes feels like fear mongering. And anyone who says something, or displays a technique that is even remotely unsafe, is quickly corrected and rebuffed by the folks I affectionately refer to as, “The Safety Police”. And of course, some of this is completely justified. Some of it is simply opinion. And some of it is down right nit picky. But many of these folks come purely from a hobby background. And its important to understand where this safety conscious (sometimes hyper safety conscious) mind set comes from. Or maybe it would be more effective to see where the more safety-casual folks are coming from. I know for me, coming from a hobbyist-turned-pro background, I have seen many shops doing things that would NEVER fly in my shop. When I look at all the things I do to be safe, I feel like I am going above and beyond the other shops I have been exposed to. But a hobbyist has a different frame of reference. Many of the hobbyist’s experiences come from books, forums, classes, and magazines. These are all places where safety is usually the #1 concern. So every time they see someone who forgets to do something they consider to be standard safety practice, its a glaring mistake to them. And many of them will not hesitate to let you know you are doing it “wrong”. But its important to understand where BOTH parties are coming from.

So what happens when the hobbyist observes the pro doing something that is less than safe. In many cases, this is something that the pro has done thousands of times without incident. And his competence and experience is enough to safely carry him through the operation. Meanwhile the hobbyist is flinching and biting his/her nails anticipating the impending injury. But who is right? I guess it all depends on your point of view and what your background is. I don’t think you can argue that there are always safer ways to do things. But who’s going to be the one to tell Sam Maloof that he really shouldn’t sculpt his chair parts free-hand on the band saw. Ha! Not me!! And remember that a professional shop has a constant looming sense of practicality, cost, and expedience. These are all things that are much less of an issue for hobbyists. Consequently these are the things that push people to varying degrees of “less safe” procedures.

So if you read this and hoped for some definitive decision or conclusion, you might be disappointed. We all come from different walks of life and different backgrounds, and thus have different ideas what qualifies as proper safe technique. I know in my case, it is my responsibility to show the safest techniques possible in my videos. And sometimes I may slip up. But the truth is, in many cases, these methods are even safer than what I would normally do in my shop if the camera weren’t on. That’s because I make decisions every single day as to what is safe enough for me. I have already decided what I deem to be safe enough for most operations given my experience and competence level.

My recommendation for people new to the craft is to learn the safest methods possible. Read up on a technique before you do it. Take all the necessary precautions. After all, its your life in your hands. And although we live in a sue-happy world where no one seems to want to take responsibility for their own actions, it is definitely YOUR responsibility to secure YOUR safety in YOUR shop. Do your research! But as you learn more and more about safety and become more experienced, its important to remember where other people are coming from. Perhaps some people are simply negligent. But many are just experienced pros who make a conscious choice to perform an action that is not as safe as we would like. So how do you handle those situations? Well I would start by analyzing the degree of risk. If its something that could result in the person lopping off their hand, you should politely make a suggestion. But if its a minor detail and you offer a correction, you run the risk of receiving your “safety police” membership card. So its really a gray area. As an instructor, I am expected to correct people. But you would be surprised at how many times I get a dirty look from an “experienced” woodworker who likes jointing boards with his/her bare hands. Again, we all draw our own line. So find your line, follow your rules, be as safe as is practical, spread the safety message but don’t preach, and remember that some folks do not want your help. And just as a reminder, your safety questions are always welcome here. And please feel free to challenge me on any particular technique from my videos. It happens all the time. ;)


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