Let’s face it: Woodworking is a fun and enjoyable hobby, but it is also inherently dangerous. Nothing will ruin your day faster than cutting off a finger or two while woodworking. If you do not know and follow commonsense safety precautions, your hobby could be over in a split-second.
This article will help you identify hazards that are common to woodworking shops and provide some basic safety rules and tips every woodworker should know to deal with those hazards and help you to leave the shop with all your digits and pride intact.
Recognizing Safety and Health Hazards in the Woodshop
In 2009, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) conducted a study of injuries resulting from stationary saw use in the United States during 2007 and 2008. This study was enlightening as to how many injuries occur from just this one tool. Some of the more interesting findings were:
- 79,500 injuries requiring emergency room visits resulted from table or bench saws.
- 101,900 injuries were related to all stationary saws (table/bench saws, band saws, radial arm saws, and miter saws.)
- 88 percent of injuries from stationary saws were the result of the users’ hands contacting the blade.
- 65 percent of injuries were lacerations, followed by fractures (12 percent) and amputations (12.5 percent).
- Fingers and hands were, not surprisingly, the most often injured body parts.
While this study addressed only injuries from stationary saws, any woodworking tool can cause serious injuries.
The most common types of injuries woodworkers suffer are:
- Lacerations or cuts
- Severed fingers
- Blunt force injuries
- Respiratory problems or disease
- Chemical burns or inhalation
- Electrical shocks or electrocution
These injuries and medical conditions result from a variety of safety and health hazards found in woodworking shops.
Most prevalent woodworking hazards
- Machine hazards. Machine hazards exist when working with or in close proximity to woodworking tools. Examples of machine hazards are:
- Point of operation safety hazards such as workpieces getting stuck and pulling your hands into the blade or cutters;
- Safety guards removed not used properly, resulting in body parts contacting cutting surfaces;
- Removing wood from a table saw or other tool while the blade is still moving, resulting in contact with your hand;
- Contact with belts and pulleys or cutting surfaces that are not unplugged and are accidentally started while undertaking maintenance or when changing bits or blades.
- Kickbacks. Kickbacks occur when the tool seizes the workpiece and hurls it back at the operator of the tool. Contact with the projected workpiece can result in blunt force injuries or even impalement. The CPSC study found that kickback happened in over 40 percent of the cases of injuries from table saws, and that in almost 94 percent of those situations, the injured person thought the blade contact was a result of the kickback.
- Flying wood chips or other material. These can cause eye injuries.
- Tool projections. Unbalanced cutter heads like router or shaper bits with broken cutters can result in centrifugal forces flinging knives or parts of bits from the tool. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) reported one woodworker was killed by a steel tool knife propelled from a rosette cutter installed in an overarm router!
- Electrical hazards. Frayed extension cords, improperly grounded tools, faulty electrical wiring, or electrical shorts can result in electric shocks or electrocution.
- Noise. Excessive noise from loud tools can damage hearing.
- Vibration. Prolonged exposure to vibration from tools such as wood sanders can cause “vibration white finger”, or Raynaud’s Syndrome, which is a disease of the hands in which the blood vessels in the fingers collapse. Sufferers can experience tingling or numbness in the fingers, the loss of skin color, muscle pain, loss of manual dexterity, and reduced grip strength.
- Wood dust. Many types of wood can cause allergic reactions, and wood dust has been determined to be a carcinogen. I once contracted pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining of the chest cavity and exterior of the lungs, from breathing western red cedar dust. I couldn’t take even the most shallow of breaths without excruciating pain that was so bad I seriously thought I was having a heart attack.
- Chemical hazards. Exposure to some chemicals found in solvents, adhesives, finishes, and top coats can result in burns to the skin and respiratory tract. Some solvents have been classified as carcinogens.
How to Protect Yourself From Woodworking Hazards
Don’t freak out after reading about all these terrible hazards found in the woodworking shop! Most of them are easily managed by wearing proper personal protective equipment and following some common sense rules. Here are the 30 tips I promised to help you deal with most of the hazards you are likely to encounter.
1. Wear eye protection when you are woodworking.
Eye protection equipment like safety glasses, goggles, and face shields are not expensive and can protect you from flying wood chips, sparks and abrasives from grinders, broken tool parts, and splashes from solvents or finishes.
- Safety glasses should be worn to protect against smaller chips and general workshop hazards.
- Safety goggles are best for protecting your eyes against chemical splashes.
- Face shields should be used when turning on a lathe or using a chainsaw. However, don’t rely on a face shield alone; you should wear safety glasses underneath the shield.
Be aware that regular prescription and non-prescription lenses like eyeglasses and readers are not considered safety glasses unless they are specifically designed to meet specific criteria.
2. Wear respiratory protection.
Respiratory protection ranges from disposable masks, washable cloth masks, half facepiece respirators, to powered air respirators.
- Disposable masks are the cheapest option but do not offer as much protection as other types of respiratory protection devices. They do not fit as tight, which allows finer dust particles to bypass the filter and get into your lungs.
- Washable face masks cost a little more than disposable masks but can be hand-washed and used over and over. They are also comfortable and very good for handling small to moderate amounts of dust.
- Half facepiece respirators offer the best level of respiratory protection short of powered air units. Most have replaceable cartridges and filters that absorb vapors and capture particulates such as dust particles. They are usually comfortable and easy to adjust to fit your head. Many of these respirators and their cartridges are approved by NIOSH, a federal government regulatory agency, for protection from a wide array of contaminants.
- Power air respirators have battery-powered fans that provide a continuous stream of filtered air to a full facepiece mask. While these are more expensive than any of the other respiratory devices, they are more comfortable and keep you cool with a steady inflow of air. The masks on these units also do not fit as tight around your face because they rely on the positive air pressure inside the mask instead of a tight seal to keep out dust and other harmful substances.
3. Use adequate dust collection.
Dust collectors or shop vacuums should be used to collect wood dust at the source. Select dust collection systems that are sized large enough to provide the necessary cubic feet per minute of airflow and that will capture at least one micron or smaller dust particles. To clean ambient dust from the shop air, use a powered air filtration system like the Powermatic PM1200 that I use in my shop and pictured below.
4. Wear hearing protection.
Excessive noise can cause permanent hearing loss. To protect your self from hearing loss, always wear earplugs or over-ear muffs. OSHA requires employers to provide hearing protection to employees exposed to an 8-hour time-weighted average of 85 decibels (dBA). While OSHA regulations may not apply to hobbyist woodworkers, they still offer good advice on how to protect yourself in your home woodshop.
The regulatory agency published the following table reflecting the maximum amount of time workers should be exposed to various noise levels from the listed woodworking tools on a daily basis while unprotected. I personally could not stand to use a wood planer for 90 minutes without hearing protection.
OSHA stated in one publication that:
“There also is mounting evidence that noise may adversely affect other parts of the body- particularly the cardiovascular, endocrine, and muscular systems – and may also lead to stress-related disorders, such as nervousness, chronic fatigue, increased blood pressure, and impaired concentration and mental function. There are as yet no effective treatments for noise-induced health problems, beyond the body’s limited natural ability to repair itself, over time, with rest and quiet.”
5. Wear appropriate footwear.
Wearing footwear with adequate arch support when woodworking will protect your feet from the strain of standing on concrete shop floors for hours. Additionally, leather boots or shoes may protect your feet and toes from cuts from sharp chisels dropped accidentally. Steel-toe shoes protect toes from being crushed if a sheet of plywood slips from your hands or if you drop a hammer on them.
6. Avoid wearing loose clothing and jewelry.
When possible, wear short sleeves in the shop to avoid long sleeves from being entangled in blades or on a workpiece spinning on a lathe. If you must wear long sleeves, roll them up. Never wear jewelry, especially rings, watches, or bracelets in the woodworking shop as these items can quickly get caught and pull your hand into blades, bits, or pulleys.
7. Keep long hair tied back.
If you are a woman or a follicularly blessed man with long locks, tie your hair back so that it won’t be entangled in tools or spinning workpieces.
8. Use anti-fatigue mats.
While having a sore back and feet aren’t necessarily dangerous, they can take enjoyment out of your woodworking. Working for prolonged periods of time on hard shop floors like concrete can have cumulative negative health effects on your feet and spine. To help counter these problems, place anti-fatigue mats in front of your most-used tools, workbenches, and assembly tables. To prevent trip hazards, choose mats that have tapered edges instead of blunt square edges.
9. Use your machine’s guards.
If I had a dollar for every woodworker who removed the blade guard from their table saw as soon as they brought it home from the store, I could be relaxing on a beach in Tahiti right now. The CPSC study mentioned earlier found that the blade guard was not used in over 65 percent of cases of injuries from stationary saws.
I have to take it on faith that the engineers who designed the blade guard on my table saw knew it should be there for a reason. I don’t buy the argument that the guards get in the way….most of the time. Some table saw operations, such as cutting non-through cuts like dadoes or rabbets, do require the guard to be removed. However, I always reinstall my table saw’s guard, shown below, as soon as I have made those cuts.
10. Keep tools properly maintained and adjusted.
Tools that are not properly maintained or adjusted present safety hazards such as kickback and loose cutter heads being ejected, among others. Make sure table saw fences are aligned parallel to the blade so that workpieces aren’t trapped between the fence and blade and kicked back. Likewise, make sure splitters are aligned with the table saw blade. Keep bandsaw blades properly tensioned when in use and make sure router collets are securely tightened around router bits.
11. Don’t use dull blades or bits or those with broken or missing teeth or cutting edges.
Dull blades and bits may cause the work to bind as it is being cut. This can lead to accidents when you have to exert more force to push the workpiece through the cut or when you attempt to unbind a stuck workpiece.
Saw blades with missing teeth may be defective, which caused the missing teeth to break loose, or they may have pieces of carbide or steel still loosely attached and that could be ejected during the next use. The same applies to router bits. Consider returning such tools to the manufacturer for repair or replacement if under warranty and the damage wasn’t a result of misuse. Otherwise, throw the damaged blade or bit away and buy a new one.
12. Avoid trip or slip and fall hazards.
Keep stuff off your workshop floors to avoid creating trip hazards. Clean the shop after every use so that sawdust doesn’t create slippery floors that can result in falls. Don’t run extension cords or dust collection hoses in walking paths.
13. Store flammable materials in proper containers.
Flammables, like adhesives, solvents, and finishes, should be stored in metal flammables cabinets if possible. Otherwise, be sure to keep them stored away from ignition sources. Check out How to Protect Your Woodshop from Fires and Explosions for more shop fire safety information.
14. Keep a properly stocked first aid kit in the shop.
A well-stocked first aid kit should include an assortment of bandages, gauze, tape, band aids, eye wash, eye cup, disinfectant ointment, scissors, fine tweezers for removing splinters, instant cold compresses, and – sit down – a plastic bag for keeping amputated fingers clean until you get to the emergency room.
15. Keep a fire extinguisher or two in the shop.
Fire extinguishers should be a part of your shop’s setup. Mount them where you can see them and get to them. Buy larger Class ABC rated models that can be used on a wide range of fires (Class A – wood and paper fires; Class B – oil and chemical fires; Class C – electric fires).
16. Equip your shop with smoke detectors.
Photoelectric smoke detectors are the best models for woodworking shops because they aren’t as likely as other types to be activated by a small amount of smoke. Wood dust, however, can still trigger these detectors, so install them away from sawing and sanding areas and away from corners. Be sure to change the battery twice every year.
17. Follow manufacturer’s safety rules for operating tools.
While this tip is over halfway down this list, its importance is as high as wearing eye protection. You may not be able to blame the manufacturer if you didn’t follow its safety rules and are hurt while improperly using a tool.
18. Use proper body positioning when using a table saw.
Kickbacks, as defined earlier, occur when a tool catches a workpiece and hurls it back toward you. These situations occur most often on table saws. To remain out of the path of a wooden projectile from the table saw, stand to one side of the blade and not directly in line with it. Watch the great video below from Woodcraft Magazine for more information on how to avoid table saw kickback.
19. Don’t reach across your body when using a miter or radial arm saw.
Reaching across your body to hold a board or to pull down the saw blade can cause your arm to be in the path of the blade. Be aware at all times where your hands and arms are at all times and don’t let them come within six inches of the blade.
20. Don’t woodwork when tired, drowsy, or under the influence of medications, drugs, or alcohol.
Working with sharp blades and power tools requires your full concentration. Don’t operate woodworking tools if your senses are dulled from medication, drugs, or alcohol or your mind is elsewhere.
21. Use lockout features on tools to keep kids or inexperienced shop visitors from turning on tools.
Many woodworking tools prevent tools from being turned on if a lockout key is removed. Others may have guards on power switches that can be secured with a small lock. Additionally, the electrical plugs on many tools have holes on the plug blades through which a small lock may be installed to prevent the machine from being plugged into an electric outlet.
22. Know how to use your tools.
Don’t use tools you don’t have any experience with. Consult the owner’s manual or seek training on how to properly use a new type of tool. Tool retailers often have classes in their stores. You can also watch videos online or read books, magazine, and internet articles to get a grasp of how to safely operate shop equipment.
23. Use the appropriate size and type of blades and bits.
Don’t force a wide blade to cut a tight radius on a band saw. Doing so can cause the blade to jump off the wheels and contact your hands or arms. See the Band Saw Basics for Beginners article for information on choosing the correct size of band saw blade.
Don’t try to use panel raising router bits in a hand-held router; use a router table instead.
24. Use the appropriate speed for router bits.
Don’t run a router at top speed when using large bits. Refer to the Wood Router Basics for Beginners article on this site for more information on proper router speeds for different size bits.
25. Don’t pass hands directly over jointer cutting heads.
Always make sure the jointer guard is in place and working. Use push sticks or a push block to run stock through the jointer. Never allow your thumb or the palm of your hand to hang over the end of the stock.
26. Never make tool adjustments while the machine is running.
Turn off the tool and unplug it before adjusting blades, bits, or guides. Make sure band saw blades are properly tensioned before the machine is turned on.
27. Use feather boards to hold workpieces tight against fences and work surfaces and push sticks or push blocks to guide workpieces.
Feather boards can be made in the shop from scrap wood, or you can purchase them. Magnetic feather boards are quick and easy to set up and adjust.
Push sticks and push blocks help keep your hands a safe distance from blades and cutters. You can make these from scrap or buy them at very reasonable prices. Watch the excellent video tutorial below and click here to get written instructions and a template for the “world’s best push stick” from IBuildIt.ca.
28. Use properly sized electric circuits and extension cords and don’t use frayed or damaged extension cords.
Make sure all tools are properly grounded and plugged into electric circuits with the appropriate size breaker. Hire an electrician if you are ever in doubt as to whether your tools are properly grounded or if your shop’s electrical service is sized appropriately for your tools. Use only extension cords that are rated for the amperage needed by the tool they will power. Replace worn or damaged extension cords immediately. Don’t allow extension or other power cords to rub against sharp edges. Use an indoor-outdoor rated inline ground fault circuit interrupter to protect against shock from damaged cords or contact with water.
Review Do I Need 240V Electric Outlets in My Woodworking Shop for more information about whether you should upgrade your shop’s electric service.
29. Don’t take cuts that are too deep.
Take several progressively deeper passes when jointer, planing, or routing wood to avoid kickbacks and to reduce the amount of exposed cutting edges.
30. Keep a phone nearby.
If you are working alone in your shop and are badly injured, you may need to call 911 for emergency help. If your shop doesn’t have a landline phone, bring your charged cell phone and keep it handy in your pocket in case you need it quickly.