Facility Maintenance Decisions

Taking Tool Safety in Hand

Power tools, more powerful and flexible than ever, prompt managers to revisit their departments’ safety-training strategies

By Thomas A. Westerkamp   Equipment Rental & Tools

Today’s power tools have become workhorses of repair and renovation, delivering reliable performance for maintenance and engineering departments that use them for a variety of essential tasks. Drills, drivers and saws are among the power tools that front-line technicians have come to rely on.

These advances in power and performance, however, make the need for ongoing power-tool safety greater than ever. As technicians use more power tools more often, maintenance and engineering managers will need to update safety training to ensure tools are used properly and safely.

The Book on Power Tools

Many features of new-generation power tools offer users increased reliability, ease of operation, and safety. They offer an array of advances, including automatic power shut-off, anti-kickback, and improved guarding, as well as better and more durable materials and more ergonomic designs.

One feature far surpasses all the others — the increased care and detail that power-tool manufacturers put into operating manuals. Efforts by the tool industry to raise the bar and protect users’ safety and health have paid off handsomely. All three sections of today’s manuals — safety, setup and operation, and maintenance — offer useful information that has resulted in more positive user experience.

For example, today’s manuals are better illustrated. They show users what safety features look like and how they should perform, and they contain useful tips about getting the best performance out of a tool. They also offer contact information in case users needs more details or parts, or if they need timely repairs to keep the tool in top condition.

But the safety payoff doesn’t come until someone reads the information, processes it, and implements manufacturer safety recommendations. Managers can make this happen through a comprehensive training and safety program that includes releasing new tools only after users have had thorough training and an opportunity to practice under the trained eye of a skilled user.

Managers often hear the argument that technicians don’t have time for training and have to get the job done. Maintenance work always comes with a degree of urgency and requires a certain amount of time, but it takes much longer to administer to an injured person and get that person to the emergency room in the event of an accident. Smart managers know they don’t need the risk exposure and, so, need to find the time for safety training.

Performance Pointers

Detailed knowledge of the tool is the first challenge and the most important safety solution. Each power tool’s carrying case should contain a copy of the tool’s specific safety rules, setup and operating instructions, and care and maintenance procedures for the user’s reference.

Users must review their knowledge of this information before attempting to use the tool. And if it is missing or damaged, they should be able to get another one. Questions these documents should answer include:

  • What tasks should I use it for, and never use it for?
  • How do I use it correctly?
  • How should the tool look with all the safety features on it?
  • Is the tool in good operating condition?
  • How should I hold it?
  • What should I wear, and avoid wearing, while using the tool?
  • Does the safety stop work? The user should try the tool and safety features under no-load conditions before operating it under load.
  • Is the work area clear of hazards, such as water, fumes, trip or fall obstacles, chemicals, flammables, and awkward or confined locations?

A Closer Look

Among the safety challenges that front-line technicians must consider before handling, setting up, or operating drills, drivers, saws and sanders are these:

    Drills. Is the cord and extension cord in good condition, with no fraying or exposed wires? Is the extension cord suitable for the job — for instance, an exterior cord for exterior use?

    If the drill is cordless, technicians should follow operating manual directions for battery use, charging, storage and disposal. Does the safety switch and trigger shut off the power to the tool as soon as it is released? Are bits sharp and of the proper grade for the job — carbon steel, high-speed steel, or carbide for wood; and high-speed steel or carbide for metal? Is the angle ground on the tip right for the job?

    Drill-bit conditions are very important. Good bits used properly improve safety because they require the user to exert less force. The danger of a bit snapping off during use is significantly lessened.

    Drivers. In addition to the cord and tool checks described for drills above, drivers should be variable-speed type for best operator control. These drivers usually can operate at lower speeds and higher torque than drills, so operators should use a drill for driving fasteners only if it offers the right speed range for the job.

    Saws. Besides the cord and safety checks above, guards are a must for saws of all types. The guard should retract as the saw enters the work piece and snap back over the blade when the cut is finished. Sometimes, a little lubrication on the guard can relieve sticking. Also, keeping the guard clear of cuttings or sawdust is important for smooth, reliable operation.

    Sharp saw blades are a must for safe operation. Users want the least effort possible to do the job because this ensures operator control. Too much pressure, followed by sudden release causing imbalance, is a common cause of injuries. Ear protection also is a must when operating most types of saws, as they can produce a great deal of noise, and long-term exposure can cause hearing loss.

    Some of the most productive saws also require the most attention during use. A technician can take several minutes to cut metal pipe with a band saw or power hacksaw, but an abrasive cutoff saw can do the job in seconds. But the cutoff saw’s high rpm, coupled with the brittle nature of abrasive wheels, mean it is essential to match the tool to the material. Technicians should never use an abrasive saw blade material for anything other than the work piece material for which it was intended, and they should never operate it at speeds outside its designated range.

    When these blades shatter, they can cause serious injury. The coding on the blade describes its application. All abrasive saw blade catalogs contain descriptions of the various wheels and their intended uses. The blades are marked with the code for reference to the catalog.

    Sanders, grinders and wire brushes. Sanders come in a variety of types, from belt type to disc, as well as the closely related array for grinders, wire brushes and polishers. Tool users should never be in a position that exposes them to the radial force of the rotating tool. If a grinding wheel shatters or if wire flies off a wire brush, operators do not want to be in the line of flight. Therefore, care and practice are required to keep the tool held in a way that prevents contact with flying objects.

Safety Sources

Periodic safety information releases by agencies such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) offer recall advice for power tools that present hazards. Recent releases include safety switches that stick in the "on" position and tools that continue to operate after the trigger is released. Some of these malfunctions have caused injury to users.

Frequent review of this information and comparison with the model number, serial number and date on power tool nameplates might help managers protect technicians from serious injury. Managers and tool users can report a dangerous tool or tool that caused injury to the CPSC hotline listed below.

Finally, 26 states have OSHA-approved safety and health programs. These programs might be different from the federal regulations, so managers should check them for added safety information. Other safety resources include:

Guidelines for Safer Tool Use

  • Wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including safety glasses, a hard hat, insulated gloves, safety shoes and, where required, a respirator.
  • Dress properly. Do not wear loose clothing, jewelry, or long hair that can get caught in rotating power tools.
  • Review the specific safety procedures recommended for the tool in use.
  • Keep the work area and floor clean and uncluttered.
  • Keep the work area well lit. Use a good flashlight in dark or shadowy areas.
  • Do not use electric tools near flammable liquids or gases, due to potential for brush sparks.
  • Keep away from grounded equipment, such as pipes and radiators.
  • Check wiring prints or insert a fiber optic light scope before drilling in walls or ceilings where electric wiring might be present.
  • Always use sharp cutting tools and well-maintained drills and jack-hammer bits. Excess pressure can cause injury from broken or dull bits or sudden jamming.
  • Unplug or lock out power tools before changing tools.
  • Use the correct type and size tool for the job.
  • Carry the tool with finger off the trigger to avoid accidental starting.
  • Know proper chip geometry to predict potential for flying chips.
  • Never touch the bit immediately after use. Watch for signs of hot drill bits or other tool accessories, such as smoking, and use lubricants if indicated.
  • Don’t use a power tool while it is wet or when standing in water.
  • Do not operate a power tool if fatigued or taking medication that can cause drowsiness.
  • Keep power tools well maintained. Look for frayed or damaged cords or loose, damaged or bent parts.

— Thomas Westerkamp

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  posted on 4/1/2004   Article Use Policy

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