Cutting Tool Engineering
July 2011 / Volume 63 / Issue 7

Metalworking safety tips

By Tom Lipton

Living is a dangerous occupation—just look at how many dead people there are. Metalworking is no more dangerous than any other human occupation; its hazards are just different.

Safety is a situational awareness issue as opposed to an equipment one. Just because you have protective equipment and guards in place does not ensure any particular level of safety. Similarly, experience and training can help, but do not guarantee safety.

If you never get in a car, it’s less likely you will be in a car accident than a person who frequently does. If you never stick your arm in a log chipper, you will most likely never have it removed by one. These examples describe two kinds of hazards: Hazards that can seek you out and ones you can just plain avoid.

Years ago, I went to one of those once-in-a-lifetime, super-duper garage sales where a retired metalworker was selling his junk pile to move across the country. A friend and I must have spent the better part of a day rummaging around in the various rooms and sheds in a machinery-drunken stupor. We each had a pile of treasure, which grew steadily as the day wore on.

The metalworker had pulled out all the stops to help unload his massive collection of rust-colored treasure. He even carted a large portion from the basement and set it along the driveway so more people could see the stuff at one time. I suspect it was also so people could actually enter the basement and move around. This guy had that much stuff. I get misty eyed just thinking about it.

Sometime in the late afternoon, a neighbor stopped by and asked the owner of this fantastic collection, who was also the area’s Mr. Fixit, to help him repair a lawn mower blade. The metalworker had set up the blade in a vise attached to a bench. Out of the corner of my awareness, I heard him hammering on the errant blade. I paid it no real heed because I was at least 50 ' away.

After a vicious round of hammering, I found a real gem in the pile I was sorting through. I stood up and raised the bauble so my buddy could see my find and the gloat on my face. Bing! One more hit with the hammer and a sudden pain at the corner of my right eye. Apparently, Mr. Fixit was using a cold chisel to chip the heads off several steel rivets holding the blade to the hub. A chunk of rivet clipped me. I was extremely lucky because it only caused a small nick and a watering eye for 30 minutes.

This is an example of a hazard that seeks you out, which is tough to guard against.

Courtesy of T. Lipton

Tweezers with a small flattened point are effective for removing metal splinters. (And, yes, I did deliberately stick a splinter in my finger for your reading enjoyment!)

Avoiding these two types of hazards is effective, but you won’t get much work done. Because we cannot avoid all the hazards we are exposed to in our trade, the best form of protection is awareness. We must have situational awareness of the hazards of our trade. We are the prey and the hazards are the predators. If something wants to eat you for lunch, you should be paying close attention to what that thing is doing at all times.

Earplugs and safety glasses are examples of items that mitigate the seeking variety of hazards.

What are the most common traits for career metalworkers? Two stand out for me: The majority I’ve met are half deaf and three quarters blind, and all have bad knees. I can’t help with the knee problem, but the ears and eyes can be saved.

Earplugs. The constant background noise in a machine shop destroys the hearing of most people after years of exposure (see “Don’t take hearing for granted” by Michael Deren in the May 2011 issue of CTE). Unregulated blow guns and the whine of a geared engine lathe will eventually impact your hearing. Earplugs are a hassle to get used to, but once you get past that break-in period, you won’t be able to work without them.

The roll-up, throwaway plugs seem to be the easiest to wear and provide decent noise reduction. Skip the earplug leash. If you take these out of your ears and put them back in more than once, they are grubby from your hands or your wax-filled ear canals. If I have to remove earplugs frequently, I switch to ear muffs.

Safety glasses. In any shop that does a significant amount of welding, glasses of some sort are a must. The stray ultraviolet light eats away at the peripheral vision of an unprotected set of eyes until your vision is ruined. Clear plastic safety glasses are effective against UV light because the clear plastic reflects 99 percent of the harmful rays. Be sure the safety glasses have side shields.

Electrical tape. Under normal combat conditions, the prepared shop veteran expects a certain number of cuts. A quick wrap of electrical tape keeps blood off the work until you can clean and dress the boo-boo. It conforms to the curves of your fingers and stretches as you move.

Sliver tweezers. Keep tweezers that have a small flattened point rather than a deadly sharp point. Those annoying metal splinters don’t stand a chance against this fine tool. CTE

TomLipton.tif About the Author: Tom Lipton is a career metalworker who has worked at various job shops that produce parts for the consumer product development, laboratory equipment, medical services and custom machinery design industries. He has received six U.S. patents and lives in Alamo, Calif. Lipton’s column is adapted from information in his book “Metalworking Sink or Swim: Tips and Tricks for Machinists, Welders, and Fabricators,” published by Industrial Press Inc., New York. The publisher can be reached by calling (888) 528-7852 or visiting By indicating the code CTE-2011 when ordering, CTE readers will receive a 20 percent discount off the book’s list price of $44.95.

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