Workshop Safety

Any work you do yourself in and around the house will almost certainly save money over the cost of employing professional labour, and generally gives the satisfaction of seeing a job well done with the minimum of disruption to your household. But it is all too easy to wipe out these advantages by failing to observe simple safety rules, with the result either that the work in hand is ruined, or more importantly, you risk serious personal injury.

Safety in this context involves a number of factors, but your chief concern should always be to ensure that your working conditions and working techniques are as safe as it is possible to make them; obviously, there will be an element of risk if you are working up a ladder, or with power tools or toxic substances, but if the proper precautions are taken there is no reason why you should not tackle any job with confidence.


One very important precaution before starting any job is to check your insurance policies. Find out whether you are covered—and adequately covered-both for personal injury and for any damage to property.

Third party insurance is important as well-for example if you allow a ladder to fall on your neighbour’s property. In the

UK, the 1974 Health and Safety Work Act makes you liable for any damage caused through such accidents and it is in any case irresponsible to ignore the safety of those around you.

All the above points are generally covered by house contents policies. Make sure that you read all the conditions and exclusions (if any) on your policy, and if necessary consult your insurance company or broker for further advice.

What to wear

Choosing the right clothes for the job is an important preliminary consideration, and one that is easily overlooked. Obviously you do not want to change if you are doing no more than hanging a picture or drilling a couple of holes, but some basic precautions must nevertheless be adhered to.

You should not wear loose fitting garments which may snag or get caught on the materials you are working with. For the same reason, you should not wear a tie or scarf unless it is tucked into a jumper—particularly important if you are using power tools.

If at all possible, wear protective clothing—either overalls or an apron-which will ensure that your own clothes do not get ripped or stained. To guard against anything being dropped, shoes should have reinforced toe-caps and soles which are thick enough to prevent any nails or other items that you might step on from penetrating through to your foot.

As circumstances demand, wear heavy duty industrial rubber gloves to protect your hands, goggles to protect your eyes, a dust mask to protect your lungs and ear defenders to save your ears from excessive machinery noise. All should be available from any good tool supplier.

Finally, remove all jewellery and your watch before starting work. Quite apart from the fact that they may be damaged, even a comparatively small weight dropped on a ring could quite literally sever a finger as all the force is concentrated on one small area.

Working environment

Unless you are very experienced, you are likely to run into minor problems on most jobs. You should therefore try to make the work as easy as possible for yourself by paying attention to factors other than the obvious ones of physical building, assembling, or repairing work. Always make sure that the working area is kept as tidy as possible, and make a conscious effort to clean up whenever you stop work even if you intend to continue the next day.

One of the most common accidents results from tripping over objects that have been left on the floor. Keep the floor free from obstructions by stacking timber or bricks, and by resisting the temptation to put tools on the floor, even for just a moment. Use a tool box or tool belt, or if you are in a workshop store tools in their proper places—do not leave them cluttering the bench.

Outside the workshop, common sense should dictate how different jobs are approached. If you have to work on the roof, a proper scaffold or tower is not only far safer than a collection of ladders, but is also more versatile and will probably make the job easier anyway. If you must use a ladder, make sure that it is sound before climbing it— even the best made timber ladder will eventually rot if it is stored out of doors unprotected.

Get an assistant to help you raise the ladder, and set it at an angle of 75°. It should be secured both at the top and the bottom carefully and strongly, and project about lm above the eaves so that you still have something to hold on to when at the top. If you do have to get on the roof itself, use a crawler ladder and a safety belt or rope which should be tied around your waist and then made fast to a strong and permanent structure.

Precautions should also be taken at ground level. When digging footings or foundations, shore up the trenches if the ground is soft or uneven and there is any possibility of collapse. And if you have to leave the work—even for a short period of time—always cover the hole with old pieces of board to protect anyone from falling in.

Not everybody will be able to afford the luxury of a workshop, but even so it is quite possible to set aside areas in every home which are suitable for do-it-yourself activities. As they can be noisy places unused garages or old garden sheds can be ideal locations. A cellar is another good alternative. Whatever you decide always ensure that your workshop has enough light and adequate ventilation.

Proper lighting is essential if you are to be able to see what you are doing without straining your eyes, so if there are no large windows instal good lighting—fluorescent strip lights that do not throw shadows are probably best.

Ventilation is an important safety consideration as many of the substances with which you will be working are potentially dangerous in an enclosed area. Many adhesives, paints and solvents give off heavy—and often inflammable—vapours and it is essential that these are properly dissipated. Make sure that a window is open or that an efficient extractor fan is operating.

Using hand tools

There are two cardinal rules associated with the use of hand tools; always use the right tool for the job (resisting the temptation to ‘bodge’) and always make sure the tools you are using are in good condition.

Most accidents with hand tools occur because either the’ tool or the workpiece has slipped. This can nearly always be prevented by making full use of vices, cramps and jigs which will keep the workpiece firmly under control, and by ensuring that all tools are kept sharp; a blunt or damaged tool is far more likely to slip than one that has been properly cared for because you will have to employ excessive force to use it.

When using cutting tools-particularly chisels and gouges-always cut away from you and make sure that your other hand is well out of the way if you are using it to steady or support the work-piece. Start hand saw cuts on the back stroke, and guide the saw with the raised thumb of your other hand; remember that it only takes a moment’s carelessness or lack of attention to cause a nasty cut. Finally, never test cutting edges of saws and other implements by drawing your thumb along them, and do not use your fingers to check the set of a plane.

Using power tools

Almost all the power tools that the DIY enthusiast is likely to use will be driven by electricity, and this is a power source that must at all times be treated with the greatest respect. Before you even plug in an electric tool, check the leads, insulation, fuse and plug.

When using the tool, a long lead should be hung over your shoulder and not permitted to trail along the ground where it could get snagged, or where you might trip over it. Likewise, the lead must always be kept well away from the business end of the tool itself.

As soon as you have finished using the tool switch off at the tool (if, as is nearly always the case, a switch is fitted) before switching it off at the socket. If you ignore this simple procedure, the next time you come to use the tool the motor will start operating as soon as it is plugged in.

Take care when storing power tools, because the manner in which they are kept has a direct bearing on how safe they are to use. Store the tools in a dry place, make sure that nothing heavy is placed on top ofthem and coil the leads neatly so that they do not get knotted. Most important is that power tools do not get damp: if there is the slightest damage to the insulation of the tool or its lead, the damp may help the electricity find an easy path to earth—possibly through your body.

Extension leads: Because of the nature of DIY work, there will often be times when you need to use an extension lead. First of all, make quite certain that the lead itself is in good condition and that the fuse in the lead’s plug is the correct rating for the appliance you intend to use at the other end.

Do not trail the lead through puddles, and try to route it so that the danger of anyone tripping over it is minimized. Never run a flex underneath a carpet or rug, however, because the pressures of people walking over it may wear down the protective coating of the flex and this could cause a short circuit and a fire. Also, you should never use an extension lead that is coiled, because this can generate enough heat to melt the plastic insulation of the lead; always undo all of a cable that has been coiled for storage.

Using machine tools

A number of do-it-yourselfers have access to machine tools-such as a lathe-and in using these, certain precautions have to be taken. Accidents are generally caused by electrical faults, mechanical faults, careless or incorrect working techniques, or a combination of two or more of these.

Therefore, start by ensuring that there are no obvious electrical problems and make sure that the machine itself has been properly serviced and is adequately lubricated. Mechanical faults are nearly always caused by poor machine maintenance or lubrication, so make sure that this is not the case with your machine. Other mechanical faults can come about as a result of worn or damaged machine parts, overloading the machine, setting up the machine wrongly, and using the wrong cutting tools in the machine.

As for correct working techniques, it is essential that you are given some guidance before you attempt to use any machine tools. If possible get someone experienced to show you how the tool works, how it should be set up, and how you should operate it.

Fire precautions

There are a number of fire precautions that you can and should take. First of all, make sure that you have a fire extinguisher close by. A wide variety of extinguishers are available and many are suitable for domestic use. Choose a standard carbon dioxide (CO2) unit as this can be used to put out most fires, including those caused by inflammable liquids; a water extinguisher is not suitable for inflammable liquids, nor for electrical fires, and so is less useful.

Many of the substances that you will be using are highly inflammable-spirit-based cleaning fluids, many adhesives, and some paints-and particular care should be taken when using these. An obvious point is to ensure that there are no naked lights in the room.

Remember that many fluids give off an inflammable vapour that can hang in the air for many hours unless an extractor fan is in use; typically, such vapours have a volume some 150 times greater than the volume of the original fluid and this means that you could well be surrounded by an invisible but highly explosive gas while you are working.

Other potential causes of fire are blowlamps and soldering irons. Take great care when using either of these and never move around carrying a lighted blowlamp-always extinguish it before taking it to the next location. You should always be wary of any naked flame, even if you think that there are no inflammable substances around. Never resort to a candle or a match for light in a confined space—use a properly protected lamp.

Toxic and corrosive substances

Special care should be taken when using any of the many toxic or corrosive substances with which the DIY enthusiast is likely to come into contact. These include some adhesives, thinners, paints and preparations as well as acids, alkalis and bleaches.

As a primary rule, you should on no account store any poisonous or dangerous substances in unmarked bottles or containers. Use properly marked nonfood containers, and store them all well out of the reach of children.

To protect yourself when using such substances, always work in a well-ventilated atmosphere if vapours may be given off and use either a proprietary barrier cream or (where feasible) gloves to ensure that they do not come into contact with your skin.

If you are using acids, and need to dilute a concentrated solution, always add the acid to the water-never the other way round. Pour the acid slowly into the full amount of water being used; if you fail to do this, the first few drops will cause a violent reaction that in many cases causes the acid to splash. If you do happen to spill any acid on your skin, wash it off immediately with copious amounts of cold water. Similar caution should be applied if you are using strong alkalis or bleaches-both of these substances can also cause nasty burns.

Take care not to create any poisonous fumes by carelessly or inadvertently mixing substances or liquids that react chemically together. Detergents, bleaches, and cleaning powders should never be mixed for this reason. In general, you should not mix any two or more substances for any purpose unless you are quite sure that it is safe to do so.

Lead and asbestos are notoriously dangerous in certain conditions, and both materials have been widely used in the construction of older houses (and still are in some more modern buildings, despite the widespread publicity that has been given to the dangers). Make quite certain that^no lead is contained in paints that children might come into contact with. Primers are especially likely to contain lead, so do check carefully before redecorating a playroom.

For adults who are unlikely to bring lead-painted objects into contact with their mouths, the major hazards come from lead and asbestos dust. If you have to sand or rub down lead paint, always work out of doors and wet the surface so that dust is kept to an absolute minimum. Similarly, if you have to cut or saw asbestos, do this out of doors, wet the asbestos first, and wear a good face mask.

Finally, a warning about cyanoacry-late ‘super’ glues, which bond skin instantly. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter, never point the nozzle towards you and keep a bottle of acetone handy to neutralize spillages. If you get any of the adhesive in your eyes, flush them with copious quantities of water and call a doctor.

Lifting weights

Whatever the scope of your DIY work, there will be numerous occasions when you will have to lift heavy weights. These may be bricks, masonry, timber or any number of other materials, but whatever they are, every time you attempt to lift any heavy weight you risk damaging your back or causing a hernia unless you do it the right way.

If you have to handle anything that is sharp or dirty, wear heavy duty gloves to protect your hands from cuts and possible subsequent infection. Before actually lifting a heavy weight, consider whether there is any other way in which it might be moved. When you must lift it, get an assistant to help you if there is any danger of you straining yourself.

When lifting, keep your back straight at all times, and do all the lifting with your legs. Feet should be slightly apart, with one a little way in front of the other to help you keep your balance. As you lift, pull the load into your body, keeping your chin up and back straight.

Any alternative to manual lifting is preferable, so try to arrange some mechanical help for yourself. If a great deal of heavy moving is necessary, consider hiring a small hoist similar to the units used to lift engines out of cars. Alternatively, you can hire lifting tackle, which consists of ropes and a series of pulleys arranged in such a way as to reduce the effort required to move the object. If neither of these alternatives is feasible make full use of levers. Any stout length of wood will do, and as long as you arrange the lever so that the weight is close to the fulcrum-the point around which the lever pivots—you can achieve quite significant mechanical advantages. This means that less effort will be required and that you are therefore less likely to injure yourself.

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