Saturday, July 24, 2010

Working Safely

Blacksmithing involves intrinsically dangerous activities. Working with high heat, powerful tools, airborne particulate and dangerous chemicals requires vigilance and a plan for safe work. The following notes represent some of the guidelines I use.

I wear eye protection at all times. I’ve worn glasses since childhood for nearsightedness so this is no inconvenience.

I like the Howard Leight® QB1® HYG Hearing Band for hearing protection at appropriate times and always when using the power hammers and grinding. Visitors are required to wear eye protection. I keep a drawer full for them. I don’t wear jewelry or a watch while working.

I buy $3 pairs of cowhide welding gloves from the welding supply store. Since I usually only wear a glove on my left hand the right ones are saved for working at the BBQ grille or to give away.

Black Carhartt bib overalls with legs that come down over my steel toe boot tops are my usual work clothes. They are tough and don’t show black “dirt” as much as lighter colors.

At the forge I enforce a rule of “keep hot iron low” even when working by myself. It is especially important when working with assistants. It probably would be less expensive to burn a leg than a face.

I designate a hot spot where we will place forged work to cool. Usually this in on a cooling pan stand about a foot above the floor where we won’t step on it.

Another rule is to announce what’s hot to everyone working if the piece is not in the designated hot spot. I cool tong jaws in the quench tub before hanging them back in the rack. There is more than one reason to pull tongs out of the rack by the jaws.

I don’t quench steel unless I’m intentionally heat treating. This protects tools such as the bandsaw blade, cold shear blades and punches from being damaged by hardened steel which is unrecognizable as such. Tool steels are stored in one designated place. All other stock can be assumed to be soft mild steel.

I made a set of cheater pipes which I use to augment bending forks and to do some hot bending of bar stock. They are pieces tube of different diameters about 18” to 2’ in length. Red color is spray painted on the hot work end and green on the grip end. Color coding them usually prevents grasping the hot end.

I do read the instruction manuals that come with power tools. Building tools such as a treadle hammer or spare tire hammer usually provides me with the necessary understanding of the weak points to watch for potential failure. Careful frequent inspection and diligent maintenance is essential.

Things that spin around fast or have high torque are especially scary; the big drill press, power drills, angle grinders, wire wheels, cutoff saws, and the tumbler.

The only tool that has actually bitten me badly so far is a knotted cup brush on an angle grinder. After that I throttled it down with a router speed control so I can adjust the rpms to the minimum required for the work. I use a full face shield when using wire wheels.

When I think of it I do a mental fire drill, “where is the fire extinguisher?” I’ve never actually used one but I have managed to set a variety of things on fire, trash bag liners, sanding sponges, facial tissue, paper towels, polyurethane adhesive, steel wool, plastic pans, shop rags and my frayed clothing.

Most handled tools used under the power hammers have mild steel handles which will bend readily if misstruck so injurious force isn’t transferred to my hand.

I use silicone caulk as a general purpose shop adhesive. It dries fast, is strongly adhesive, and doesn’t catch on fire easily like polyurethane adhesive does. Running a bead around the post vise handles at the ball/shaft junction and tying a leather strip around over it provides a safety bumper that prevents pinching. I acquired an old post vise that had the handle bent into a gentle S. I think it was done intentionally to prevent the shaft from free falling when vertically aligned and that seems to work well.

“If you can’t hold it you can’t hit it”, said Francis Whitaker. When the hammer hits the anvil and rebounds toward my face it isn’t usually because I aimed at the wrong spot it is because the workpiece slipped out of position. Getting a secure grip on the work piece is essential for safe controlled work. I try to pick the best fitting tongs for the stock before I put the piece in the fire.

I think I have a pretty good grip on most shop hazards but haven’t licked the airborne particulate problem to my satisfaction especially during the cool months when the doors are closed. The forges and torches produce soot. The tumbler puts out a lot of “dust” which is a mixture of magnetite, hematite, steel, paint, and dirt. Grinding belts and wheels fling off abrasive particles.

I pickle in hydrochloric acid anything that is galvanized before it is heated and I use very little of that material anyway. I have a fearful respect for zinc and copper fumes. I spray protective finishes outdoors.

From time to time I think about devising some kind of air cleaning system (in addition to the furnace filters) that would make the air safer but it hasn’t happened yet.

The Artist Blacksmithing Association of North America publishes a “Safety_First.pdf” which I print and post in the studio.

Developing work habits which favor ergonomic efficiency and prevent overuse musculoskeletal injuries is a subject in itself.

1 comment:

  1. Here is a link (as of 8/27/10) to the ABANA Safety poster:


I don't often check for blog comments, so the best way to contact me is directly: at or