Job Safety Takes Constant Attention

It only took a moment of carelessness and a fraction of a second for the carbide to tear my flesh. The router bit grazed the top surface of my left forefinger, tore off the fingernail and split the finger to the first knuckle. As I jerked my finger back, the bit also took a chunk out of the finger tip. It wasn't until several days later, when I carefully reconstructed all that I'd done, that I fully understood the mistake I'd made.

I was using a sink removal bit, which I know is potentially very dangerous. I've used such bits for years with great caution, and I thought that I was being reasonably careful that day. It's now clear that I wasn't careful enough. The bit measures 3-5/8" in diameter, and the base plate of the router I was using is only 4-1/4" wide. Instead of using the bit to remove an undermounted solid surface sink, I was using it to undercut the support beneath a countertop as part of a countertop repair procedure. Because of the countertop layout, I needed to lean over a bit more than usual, so my footing wasn't the greatest. As I leaned over to begin the cut, I stabilized the edge of the router base plate on the edge of the counter with my left thumb. At that moment, I was not even aware that my finger was now dangling less than 1" from the router bit. The very edge of the router base plate was on the surface of the countertop, and most of the router's weight was supported by my hands. When I turned on the router, the motor torque caused it to rock a bit, and I moved my left hand a bit to help stabilize it just enough to allow my finger tip to enter the line of fire.

I've always been pretty conscious of safety issues, but this mishap taught me that I need to concentrate on safety even more closely. So, I would like to describe some of the precautions that I take, especially those of particular interest to countertop fabricators and installers.

Safety precautions
Obviously, the various power tools that we use are potentially dangerous. I believe the risks are greatest when a tool is brand new or very old. When working with a new tool, you need to read the manual, carefully reviewing the sections that describe proper use, including how to secure bits or blades in place, proper operating speeds for various materials and types of operations, and the like. Try several tasks on scrap material a few times, rather than putting the new tool to work on a paying job right out of the box.

When you've had a tool for a long time, be aware of any signs of deterioration in its performance. Do preventive maintenance frequently, such as removing dust build-up and lubricating router plunge mechanisms, replacing damaged power cords and lubricating the bearings of router bits. When the tool shows clear signs of age, either have it refurbished or retire it don't push it until it burns out. Struggling with a failing tool can be dangerous.

A kitchen in the midst of a countertop installation can be a chaotic place. Remove as many obstacles as possible from the kitchen and the pathway from your truck to the kitchen. During the course of an installation, I may use up to a dozen different power tools, and if I'm not careful, the work area ends up with a tangle of power cords running everywhere. The possibility that my foot will get tangled in a cord and a power tool will be pulled off the countertop is very real. Every so often as I work, I unplug all the tools and neatly wind the cords of those I am not using at that time. I also wear steel toed boots at all times while working, and put moving blankets down to protect the floor from a dropped tool. Although I save meticulous cleanup until the job is done, I do frequent interim cleanups as I work, disposing of debris and vacuuming up piles of dust to minimize the risk of slipping or tripping.

I double check router collets from time to time to verify that bits are securely in place. Before making a router cut, I go through a last minute check list. I verify that straight edges or templates are securely clamped in position. I make sure that I'm using the proper router bit, and double check the depth of the cut when it's critical. I check the speed setting of the router. This is especially important with large diameter bits, which should be used only at slower speeds. I make sure that sufficient power cord and dust collection hose is available to stretch out for the full length of the cut, and verify that nothing blocks my footing if I need to take a step or two during the router cut. Then, I ask myself, "What might go wrong here?" Only when I'm sure that things are fine do I turn on the router.

Occasionally, I'll blow a circuit breaker in a kitchen. When this happens, I unplug my tools before correcting the problem. I don't want any chance that an unattended power tool will start running when the power comes back on.

As a result of a frightening mishap a few years ago, I no longer place tools on a range or a cooktop as I work, unless the appliance is disconnected. I once put a plastic tool box on a range in a crowded kitchen, and later bumped into a knob without noticing, turning on a burner. Soon, the open lid of the tool box was in flames, dripping melted orange plastic on the range. I was fortunate to be able to douse the flames, and much to my amazement, the melted plastic peeled off the range without any damage. But it could have been much worse, and I learned my lesson. I keep that partially melted tool box lid in my shop as an ongoing safety reminder.

Safety glasses are a must, and I use ear plugs whenever operating noisy tools for more than a minute or two at a time. Customers frequently ask why I rarely use a dust mask. I've never been able to tolerate wearing them for long periods of time. I'll wear one for a few minutes when I know that I may get a lot of dust in my face. Otherwise, I rely on dust collection and frequent vacuuming and sweeping to keep my exposure to dust at a minimum.

Many years ago, in a large architectural millwork and cabinet shop, I encountered several employees with nine fingers, and I vowed to myself to be very careful with power tools so that I could keep 10. I've still got 10, although one is now a bit battered. I hope that my heightened awareness of safety will help prevent any more serious accidents.

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