Get The Upper Hand on Safety When Using Power Equipment

Power drill and circular saw on workbench

Our hands are the ultimate tools. Think about all the things they enable us to do: operate machines and equipment, create art, grip tools and materials, punch out a text message, strum an instrument, sense texture and temperature, pet a dog, play catch with a child, and so on. Imagine a future where our hands’ abilities are compromised or lost.

Using powered shop equipment, be it on the job, at school, or at home, presents the potential for severe injuries. Almost every industry utilizes some type of powered shop tool or equipment within their operations. Whether it’s grinding, sanding, pressing, cutting or drilling, each tool presents unique dangers. Recognizing potential hazards is basic to reducing one’s risk of injury. Our hands are particularly vulnerable when using powered shop equipment. Machines capable of cutting or shaping wood or metal can easily crush, abrade, puncture, cut, lacerate, or amputate fingers and hands.

These hazards are controllable through operator education and training, proper guarding, personal protective equipment, appropriate machine maintenance, and by applying and enforcing safe work practices.  

Training and education should be provided before operating any powered equipment. Include new workers, even if they have previous experience using similar equipment.

General training should provide clear understanding of common safety rules and expectations, such as:

  • training and authorization requirements for operating all machines and equipment;
  • requirements, expectations, and use of functional protective guards;
  • reporting requirements for defects;
  • reporting requirements for incidents and near misses.

Machine-specific training and education is essential and should be provided by qualified, safety-conscious instructors. The scope and content of training should be developed to consistently and effectively address critical safe work practices, including:

  • hazards associated with the machine;
  • safeguards on the machine, how they provide protection, and the hazards which they are intended to mitigate;
  • circumstances under which and the procedure for removal of safeguards;
  • detailed lockout/tagout procedures;
  • procedure for damaged, missing, or inadequate safeguard;
  • requirements and expectations for personal protective equipment.

Emphasizing an understanding of the safety warnings contained in the operator’s manual is a good means to communicate machine-specific hazards and understand necessary safeguards. Watching videos and/or reading the operator's manual are useful training components. However, when used alone, they are not sufficient to assure adequate understanding of safe work practices. Additionally, all videos and adjunct resources should be vetted to ensure their content is in line with your policies and procedures.

Hands-on demonstration of machine set-up and operations by the instructor is warranted. At a minimum, this should be followed by practical demonstration by the trainee to verify competence. Periodic follow up observations and repeated awareness training based on observations are good practice.

Personal protective equipment should be selected based upon a hazard assessment. Consulting operator’s manuals are helpful. Gloves are often thought of when it comes to protecting one’s hands, but they are not always a wise choice, as loss of tactile sense and decreased gripping power may create hazards. Gloves should never be worn around reciprocating or rotating machine parts since they may be grabbed and directed into a hazard area.

Establish and communicate responsibilities with supervisors and others responsible for machine operations to ensure machines, their safeguards, and accessories are in serviceable and safe condition and are being used properly. “Proper use” includes using the proper machine for the task, wearing proper PPE and clothing, using the right accessories, and applying correct technique.

Tools and equipment should be periodically inspected.  Remember that a malfunctioning guard may deter its use, missing accessory tools may promote hazardous risk taking, and a dull blade is a dangerous tool.

Consider replacing older equipment with newer equipment, which may be designed with improved guarding. Skin contact-sensing technology, such as a finger-sensing table saw, is a good secondary line of protection when used with a guard. In saws equipped with this technology, the blade shuts down in a split second if any part of a worker’s body touches the saw blade. I have been told more than once, “We replaced all of our saws after an amputation and the injury cost us several times more than the cost of one saw.”

In the event of injury or near miss, don't lose the opportunity to investigate. A fact-finding review with the injured or involved employee and supervisor may reveal insights into the event which may in turn be applied to injury prevention in other situations.

Powered equipment safety is in your hands and should be on your mind. Taking inventory of the equipment utilized in your operations, reviewing your safety program, and implementing hazard controls can prevent life altering injuries.

For more information, MEMIC policyholders can consult their safety management consultant and use the resources on the MEMIC safety director. Also, check out these references:

OSHA: Safeguarding Equipment and Protecting Employees from Amputations and Protecting Workers from Woodworking Hazards

Massachusetts Department of Health:  Remove Your Gloves! Safety Alert Fact Sheet

Oregon OSHA: Machine safeguarding at the point of operation

MEMIC blogs: Table Saw Safety and Hand in Glove