How much risk are you willing to take?
Many of us are in agreement that shop safety is more about attitude than it is about a set of “hard and fast” rules. So many of the common safety rules are difficult, if not impossible to abide by.
A good example is “never reach behind the blade of a table saw.” In fact, many of the owner’s manuals clearly state that this should never be done. And yet, anyone who has ever actually used a table saw will tell you that, in many cases, placing a hand behind the blade is essential to safe operation. You may need to keep the stock pressed down on the table to prevent the blade from lifting it as the teeth come up through the kerf. Or you may need to feed the last bit of a rip cut from the outfeed side.
Another safety rule is to never remove the blade guard. But again, most of us have found ourselves in situations in which it is impossible to use the saw at all, much less use it safely with the guard in place. So we always have to come back to the most important safety rule of all which is to stay focused on the task at hand and never do anything that does not feel comfortable to you.
There are some things that are so inherently risky that most of us would never attempt them. Freehand cutting on the table saw, for example. That’s something I have done maybe three or four times in over 35 years of woodworking because I always feel at risk when attempting it. Even contemplating it gives me the heebie jeebies. The chance of a brutal kickback is the least of the unpleasant possibilities. But there have been a few times when it was the only way I could accomplish the task at hand and, those few times, I capitulated to necessity. But I did so with a full understanding that the danger was well beyond my level of comfort, my attention was in fully focused mode and I was completely prepared to bail out at any moment. Even so, I had to take the rest of the day off after those operations to let my nerves calm down again!
There are woodworkers who are willing to take much greater risks than I am. It’s hard for me to understand how a person can justify doing things that I would consider too risky to even attempt. But I know guys who make freehand cuts on their table saws without a second’s hesitation. I have to admit that I’m not the kind of guy who enjoys leaping out of airplanes, jumping off of bridges with a big rubber band tied to my ankle, sliding down a steel handrail on a skateboard or flying off a snow covered cliff with a plank strapped to my feet.
Any of those things could result in serious bodily harm. And many of the things we do everyday in the shop might seem just as risky to the guys who do things I would never even consider. But I don’t work with dangerous machines because I enjoy the adrenalin rush or because I get off on feeling fear. I truly dislike feeling fear and any time I feel fear in the shop, I immediately stop what I am doing and start looking for another method.