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Real World Workshop Safety

Ideas that you can actually use in your home workshop

By Julian Edgar

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The other day I went to an Occupational Health and Safety training day.  Yes, I know what you are thinking:  a course designed for the lowest common denominator. ‘Don’t smoke when you’re filling your car with petrol’– stuff like that.

But I have to tell you, I actually found the course extremely thought-provoking. In fact, I’d go further than that – I think my risk of injury or death when I am working in my home workshop will now be reduced.

So let me tell you why – and there are really only two ideas that underpin that increase in safety.

Calculating Risk

Early in the course the trainer put this table up on the screen.

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Down the left hand vertical axis is an evaluation of how severely someone could be injured if an accident occurred. Across the top horizontal axis is the likelihood of that accident actually occurring. Within the chart is a rating from 1-6, with the lower the number, the greater the risk.

Now what I found very interesting was that the trainer asked us to assess a particular risk - that is, to pick the correct number in the table for a situation he described. The situation was coming in contact with the electricity running through power cords in the room, ones he had connecting the wall power socket to his laptop and projector.

Hmm, OK – I looked at the table. On the scale of ‘likelihood’, I figured that the chance of anyone getting hold of an exposed conductor was ‘very unlikely’. However, if someone did do that, I figured it would be pretty bad – so I picked as the outcome ‘kill or cause permanent disability or ill health’.  The table risk number? I got ‘3’.

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But this is where it gets interesting – because I was wrong. Sure, the likelihood of anyone grabbing a conductor was ‘very unlikely’ – but if they did, the chances are that they would not die. Why? Because the trainer had a safety switch (an earth leakage breaker) plugged in at the wall!

In fact, to go further, he pointed out that if in fact the Risk Number actually was ‘3’, none of us should have been in the room!

Instead, an acceptable risk was indicated by 4, 5 or 6. His chosen number was ‘6’ – low risk indeed.

And of course, he was right.

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Think of the hazardous tasks you perform in a home workshop – welding with oxy-acetylene gear, for example. I am experienced in this area and I wear the correct gear, so I’d rate my chances of getting burnt as ‘Unlikely – could happen but very rarely’ and the outcome if I did get burnt as ‘First aid needed’. The resulting risk number is ‘5’ – and that’s fine.

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But take a different job, like using a metal-cutting bandsaw. Now I’d rate the chance of injury higher than a burn from the oxy – with a bandsaw, it’s just so easy to slip. In fact, I reckon it ‘could happen sometime’ – that is, over the long term, it is ‘Likely’. You’d be lucky not to get anything less than a severe cut, so that would make such an outcome ‘medical attention and several days off work’ or ‘serious injury’. The risk numbers? 3 or 2 – and that’s getting dangerous.

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I always think that working under a car on jack-stands is dangerous. But I never, ever get under a car that’s supported by anything less than doubled-up jack-stands – so for example using four when in fact two would support the weight. I reckon that the likelihood of injury from the car falling on me is ‘Very Unlikely’ – but if it did, the outcome would surely be ‘death or serious injury’. That’s still a ‘3’ or ‘4’ – dangerous indeed.

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I can well remember the day long ago that I cut my hand with a hacksaw. I was using it in a silly way, and it slipped, slicing straight into my hand. Considering my stupidity (and inexperience), I’d rate the likelihood back then of injury when using a hacksaw as ‘Likely’ or ‘Very Likely’. And the sort of cut that could result - and in fact, did result? I needed stiches and so that rates as ‘Medical attention’ – the risk number works out to be ‘2’. A high risk – and yes, it did in fact happen, so that risk rating reflects reality.

Now if you’ve been following along, you can see that this approach takes into account training and experience of the operator, the gear that you are wearing, the safety precautions you take, the people you have available to give you quick help… everything.

I strongly recommend the table to you.

Risk Reduction

The other area that the trainer covered and which struck me as a very effective idea was in risk reduction.

“Personal Protective Gear is the least effective at reducing risk,” he said.

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That really got my attention – you mean, putting on those ear protectors or safety goggles is pointless? Well the answer to that is: in terms of reducing risk, it is in fact the least important.

The order in which you should take steps to reduce risk is this:

1.     Elimination – remove the hazard completely

2.     Substitution – replace the hazardous activity with something else

3.     Isolation – minimise the chance of others coming in contact with the risk

4.     Engineering – use equipment or processes that makes it safer

5.     Administration – put in place rules and training

6.     Personal protective equipment – safety helmets, goggles, clothing, etc

And you see, in terms of minimising risk, personal gear is in fact the least effective!

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As soon as I heard this, I started thinking of when my little boy (he’s seven) is in my home workshop. If I am using an angle grinder on steel, I give him goggles and ear protectors to wear (ie reduction of risk by use of Personal Protective Equipment). But according to the above list, it would be far more logical to remove him from the hazard – “Go play in the yard while I am doing this grinding”. Kinda obvious after it’s been pointed out!

And rather than just putting on goggles and a leather apron when I am heating steel red-hot to allow it to be easily bent, it might be damn sight safer if I first implement an ‘Engineering’ step – say by clearing the floor I’ll need to walk across when carrying that red-hot piece of metal in some tongs.

The approach gives a structure to your thoughts, so you’re less likely to miss some obvious first steps.  

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I am about to build a (new!) large home workshop. Safety should start with ‘Elimination’ – so how can I site the machines and stores and shelves to reduce the likelihood of an accident ever even happening? I am still thinking about that – but as a result of the above list, I am actually thinking….

Conclusion

Two ideas:

1)    Evaluate the likelihood of an accident happening and how bad the results would be if it did happen, then calculate the real-world risk.

2)    Remember that personal safety equipment is right down the bottom of the list in reducing risk of injury or death… not up the top as after a while you start to believe.

The Occupational Health and Safety course I did was entitled ‘Work Safely in the Construction Industry’. It’s a prerequisite to becoming an Owner/Builder in New South Wales (and I needed to become one to build my new home workshop!). The course I did was provided by Allens Training and was run in Wagga, New South Wales. The course was paid for at normal rates - AUD$130.

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