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Safety Tip: Having a Clear Head

We all know not to drink alcohol or be distracted when we are in the shop. But having a clear head is more than that, as I found out last week.

I had been to a funeral service for a young lady who had lost her battle after a long illness. When I came home, all I wanted to do was go out to the shop and think about nothing but woodworking. I think many of us do this. A good hobby is therapeutic for relieving stress. We forget about the outside world and can bury ourselves in the creative process. The problem is some stress does not so easily go away. We may think we are not distracted, but our minds are complex things. It does not take much to throw us off.

It all seems so odd now in retrospect, the choices I made that day. I wanted to rip a block of 2x4 on my table saw. I went through my drill: ear protection on, practice the cut, make double sure the push stick is just where I want it and that the out feed is clear of any obstructions. Then I seemingly made several bad choices for no reason I can think of, except that I was trying to immerse myself in the task and by doing so moved too fast to do it right. I put the blade up far too high, although I remember considering it and the reason, since forgotten, seemed clear enough.

But then came the whopper. I usually wear a full face shield, as I wear glasses and safety goggles drive me nuts. I always wear this because even though I have never had a kick-back happen, I am mindful that goggles will not keep my teeth from getting smashed in or my jaw from being broken. The face shield was sitting right in front of me.

I picked it up and placed it to the side. Such a strange thing to do, but then again grief is strange too. It sneaks up on us at odd moments, robs us of our happiness, makes us feel guilty. I swear I was not thinking about anything like that. I thought I was enjoying the activity, seemingly free of the mornings emotional tribulation. Of course, I realize now part of my mind was very much still dwelling on other things, and that this was just the wrong time to be using large power tools. But hindsight is always 20/20.

So I turned on the saw, made my cut and it seemed simple and almost flawless...until the work reached the rear edge of the raised blade. Did I not push it all the way clear? Did I somehow twist the push-stick and drive the work into the blade sideways? I don't know, it all happened so fast and was so unexpected. I in fact thought it was a flawless cut.

The block of wood seemed to do something bad between the blade and the fence, like it was suddenly dancing or having a seizure. There was a very bad sound. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my brain knew but there is just no way at that point your body can react. Some might say you can but they are wrong. In that split second a very small voice in my head is saying something else, but it is more a feeling of unease than words...something about where I should not be...something about not standing in line with the blade.

The actual instant the work went airborne straight towards me I will always remember, although it is surreal having happened so fast. I registered the bad sound stopping, almost deafeningly quiet. I saw the block rise straight towards my face like one of those movie gimmicks where you see the baseball coming right at the camera. I didn't know the human brain can capture such a detail, but it lacks the mental resolution to absorb the meaning...no fear, no muscle memory to try and duck. Just a block of wood seemingly coming at me, filling my vision so large and fast it might as well have been the moon shooting towards me.

I was struck on the right side of my unprotected face, just below the eye socket where my cheek is half covered by my beard. It spun me around and knocked the large industrial ear protectors (the ones that looks like old headphones) right off me. There was this very loud sound, like a heavy thump and something crashed or rung. My wife who was inside the house with the windows closed and watching television 15 feet from our detached garage distinctly heard the sound of the saw changing pitch and the near instantaneous impact of the wood block against the far wall after it bounced off my face.

When all is said and done I am grateful. I am grateful it was only a glancing blow instead of right between the eyes or in my mouth. I am grateful my first instinct was to have the sense to hit that big red stop switch that Craftsman seemingly in their last act of good design included on the saw. I am grateful it was a scrap of 2x4 with somewhat rounded edges and that it somehow did not just slice my face open, or even break the skin. I am grateful for having not been knocked unconscious so that I can remember the whole terrible experience and learn from it.

I remember the pain of being hit and the odd numbness that followed...like my face was in shock at being struck so hard and did not know what to do with itself. Self preservation took over and I found myself methodically checking my face and mouth for wounds. Eyes, eyes socket, cheek, cheek bone, teeth and jaw, and then back and forth just in case I was really in shock and had suffered some kind of horrific facial amputation. I kept thinking I could taste blood, but only a little. Somehow, I was OK. The quick intervention of an ice pack and Advil helped too. There was swelling, and the hint of a bruise and it still hurts a little a week later but nothing I don't deserve for my stupidity.

I found the block of wood. It looks like a shark attacked it on three sides. Jagged tears where the blade violated the grain in a way no woodworker ever wants to see. I still find it hard to believe I didn't even get scratched. I am keeping that scrap to remind me always of my folly, and of my luck. And that we do get second chances now and then, and lucky breaks.

So consider your state of mind when you go in to the shop. It can and should be a refuge of peacefulness, but we do carry our lives with us. We can not escape what is. When we pretend otherwise, we in fact let down our defenses just as surely as not wearing eye and ear protection.

Brock Friedman

Hanover Park, Illinois

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