Stay Focused/Stay Safe: Power Tool Safety

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By Rick Bush

Complacency is the enemy of safety. While so many of us use power tools daily for a living and those tools have become an extension of our body, it is quite easy to become complacent in how we treat these electrified machines of labor. Mindset is your friend when it comes to working with tools: that and a healthy respect for the power and risk that are inherent in power tool operations.

The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides many guidelines for power and hand tool safety on their website at osha.gov/Publications/osha3080.html.

Besides the obvious warnings so often accompanied with many product manuals we encounter on a regular basis, there is very good information on the proper use of a tool that may really help one get maximum value and best results. So yes, take the time to review and read the manuals supplied with your tools – and not only when you first purchase the tool. Occasionally you may find a nugget of useful information after you have had some time with a tool that may help you use it in an even better way.

Once you are ready to use the tool, be sure to use the appropriate personal safety gear. No matter how fast you think your reflexes are or how strong your eardrums might be, blades spin faster than you can react and even the dull whir of a power tool can erode hearing over time. In addition, never alter a guard or use a tool with a guard missing. Be sure all guards are in place and working properly before each use.

Now that we are past the requisite plea to read the manual, let’s talk about some other useful points to further our pursuit of safe usage. Whether corded or cordless, power tools can pose a risk to the user just by picking them up. I have seen tools picked up by their power cords, which on the surface may not show any damage; it is possible to damage the connection points or the cord itself, which not only may make a tool unsafe, but also may cause a short that may damage the motor, or the onboard electronics, or both. Also, extension cord sets used with portable electric tools and appliances need to be of three-wire type and should be designed for hard or extra-hard usage. See the OSHA website for more details.

With either corded or cordless, it is also important to grasp the tool by the handles and not engage the power switch or trigger. Practice good trigger discipline and don’t put a finger on the trigger until the operation is underway. The best way to transport and move a tool around is in a case that is designed to store, transport, organize, and protect the tool. Some manufacturers now offer cases that stack upon each other, and some can also be interlocked to boost efficiency on the jobsite.

Speaking of handles, some tools are designed to be used with two hands. This helps to ensure control of the tool as well as keep the hands away from the “business” portion of the tool where the greatest threat of injury can be found.

When it comes time to change blades, cutters, bits, etc. (tooling), another best practice is to de-energize the tool by either unplugging the tool or removing the battery. It only takes a few seconds to remove the threat of accidental triggering by making sure the tool cannot switch on and cut the user in the process. Some power tool manufacturers offer a quick-release power cord that detaches from the power tool. This is the fastest way to de-energize a corded tool in a place where you can see and feel that the power is disconnected. It is also an excellent practice to cycle the switch after unplugging to ensure that the tool is not live before changing the tooling.

Tripping and slipping hazards are a concern on any jobsite. One of the culprits that can create a slipping hazard is sawdust. Dust on any surface can be slippery; it also tracks all over the jobsite, and if that jobsite is the customer’s home, sawdust is an unwelcome nuisance. One way to control dust on the jobsite is to use power tools that are designed with dust control in mind. These tools feature dust ports and design elements that facilitate dust extraction when paired with an independently powered dust extractor such as a vacuum.

There are dust extractors on the market that feature onboard power supplied by a socket that triggers the operation of the vacuum that is synchronous with power tool operation for a near-seamless effect of dust removal and containment. This feature is not limited to corded machines but – thanks to Bluetooth technology – is now also available with battery-operated tools. Such measures can help minimize dust on the jobsite as well as reduce the hazards associated with dust.

The miter saw has become an asset both in the shop and at the jobsite. It is fairly simple in operation but not without risks. Most miter saws are equipped with lines on the table portion on the left and right sides. These lines may be accompanied by some graphics or another indicator that refers to the risk presented to fingers. One may look at the blade and wonder how these lines, which are a few inches from the blade, can represent a danger zone. The danger does not come from the range of the blade; rather, these lines indicate the area by which the material should extend.

That is, the material being cut should meet or exceed the line toward the outer edges of the saw. Material that is within the line presents a real danger to the user as it may be sucked into the blade and may kick out of the machine or fly back at the user. Worse case, the material may be pulled into the blade, taking the fingers of the user with it and causing a laceration or worse. Please respect the safety zone on these saws to avoid this possibility. Another way to avoid kickback from a miter saw is to keep the saw plunged through the material until the blade comes to a full stop. A blade that is still rotating as it is lifted through the cut can grab loose material and make it a projectile.

Whenever machining material on the jobsite, another way to ensure a safe operation is to clamp the material down before machining. This can be done on a bench, table, or, in the case of the miter saw, on the table of the machine itself.

It is all too easy to disregard power tool maintenance, which also presents a risk to users. Keeping tools clean makes working with the tools a pleasure, and it also makes it easy to detect if there is anything wrong with the tool, such as damage from being dropped. If a tool is dropped, exposed to the elements, or subject to power surges, always seek a qualified service technician to examine the tool for safe use. It is helpful to keep not only a tool but also the blades or cutters of the tool clean. Clean tooling stays sharper longer, cuts better, requires less effort to use, and improves results.

Anytime we grab that all-too-familiar power tool, take the time to do a little preflight check to ensure that the tool is set up properly, material is secure, and we are working safely. This little mental check only takes seconds. Sometimes I even say it out loud before making a cut, especially when I am tired or feel like I am in a rush to finish something. Taking that few seconds has not only kept me safe, but also helped me keep from ruining material by making a bad cut.

Rick Bush is Product Marketing Manager at Festool USA LLC. He can be reached at rick.bush@festoolusa.com.

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