There are some significant hazards in a woodturning workshop. Some of them are specific to turning and others are common to all woodworking. The hazards that can cause ill health and injuries in industrial workplaces are just as much an issue for hobby turners. Perhaps more so, as the law provides some protection for people at work, including in the UK a requirement for adequate information, instruction, supervision and training to be provided to employees. Amateurs working alone may only discover the dangers the hard way, which is a good reason to go on a turning course.
But we can take precautions, and most turners survive with nothing more than minor scratches from time to time. The risks are manageable if recognised. An absorbing occupation that helps keep you active has health benefits too. Turning is fun, and perhaps no more dangerous than other kinds of woodworking. And what activity is completely hazard-free?
Some of the risks can be minimised by obvious safety rules such as keeping guards on machines and wearing face protection. Often, people ignore these rules and just work carefully. It’s their choice. But it’s hard to be careful all the time, and probably most people who get hurt thought they would be OK as long as they were careful. There are some hazards that can’t be eliminated, so only being careful will protect you against them – for example you have to avoid getting your fingers caught between the spinning wood and the tool rest on the lathe. Care, alertness and good working habits are always going to be necessary, and they become second nature.
All turners know that dust is one of the hazards, but often aren’t sure how dangerous it is. Turners are exposed to dust concentrations significantly higher than the safety standards set for industrial workers. But few are exposed for eight hours a day, every day, the assumption behind those standards. Only a small proportion of hobby turners are likely to suffer serious harm.
Dust control is achieved in the turning workshop by effective collection at source, with a breathing mask if the extraction fails to capture all the dust. For more information, see my articles on wood dust and dust control.
Machinery and turning
Spinning wood can badly injure or even kill people. If spinning too fast, it can break up. The pieces will then fly with all the kinetic energy given to them by the lathe motor. A key left in the chuck when the lathe is switched on will be flung out. An incorrectly presented tool can dig in, wrenching the wood as well as perhaps throwing the tool.
If the timber is not secure, it can come loose and hit someone, but while it remains in one piece, much of its kinetic energy is rotational. You don’t want it hitting you, but if it does, the force of impact will usually be less than the hammer blow you could receive from half of a large bowl blank. An unbalanced piece run too fast can tear itself off the chuck with significant sideways momentum. If the fixing is secure, the forces could overturn the lathe.
Sharp edges on the rotating timber can cut. The rotating drive centre or chuck, and the workpiece, can entangle hair or clothing, pulling you in with great and sudden force. Something will have to give, and that’s a battle the lathe will win. Rags or steel wool wrapped round your fingers can drag them in. Projecting chuck jaws can trap your fingers against the tool rest or send a sharp cutting tool flying. The hollow Morse taper in the headstock will grab anything put into it, including a finger. The lathe’s drive belt could easily break your fingers against the pulley. A wrongly presented cutting tool catching in the wood and snapping down onto the toolrest can pinch fingers. A Jacobs chuck can work loose from the spindle taper and perhaps be flung across the shop.
Turners typically use other machinery, including a bandsaw, chain saw, grinder, sander, drill, table saw and others, all with their own specific hazards. These machines may have rotating cutters and parts that can entangle hair or clothing, or finger trapping points (for example between a grinding wheel and its tool rest).
Tie back long hair when using any machinery with exposed rotating parts. Don’t wear long sleeves, a tie, a scarf, loose clothing or jewelry that might catch. Don’t take chances with a poorly gripping chuck or a weak fixing on a faceplate. Keep the lathe speed down when turning heavy pieces, particularly when they are not balanced – always check the speed before switching on. If something goes wrong, the lower the lathe speed, the less will be the consequences. If the lathe has variable speed it can be good practice to use the speed control to stop the lathe rather than the off switch. This avoids starting at a high speed set for the last job.
Don’t use timber with dangerous cracks or bark inclusions or rotted areas. Keep out of the ‘line of fire’ if possible, particularly when starting up. Make sure the off switch is within reach. Take off the sharp edge on a bowl rim with a tool or abrasive. Don’t use a chuck with projecting jaws. Never put your finger into the taper while the lathe is running. Move the toolrest out of the way when sanding. Use paper instead of rag when polishing, and don’t wrap steel wool round your finger.
Never leave the chuck key in the chuck. Handle cutting tools with care around the spinning wood to avoid accidental contact, and don’t have your finger between the tool and the toolrest.
Learn to walk before you run
Don’t turn large heavy pieces until you have plenty of experience of smaller ones. Some lathes have steel mesh guards to stop flying chunks of wood. Wear good quality full face protection, properly adjusted – chips can fly up under a face shield and get in your eyes, unpleasant at the least. Don’t use gloves if they might catch. (If flying chips hurt your hands, reduce the speed or put a chip deflector on the gouge. If your hands are cold, turn the heating up.) And if using a Jacobs chuck without tailstock support, fit a draw bar to keep it secure.
Understand the equipment
Make sure you understand the machines, their hazards, and good practice in their use (for example the danger of kickback on a table saw is not immediately obvious to a beginner). Be cautious when taking advice from a YouTube video which is not from an authoritative source. Don’t use the machines beyond their safe limits. Keep guards in place when the machines are in use, and use appropriate personal protective equipment. Full face protection is advisable at the lathe – safety glasses are not sufficient.
Bandsawing timber for woodturning has some particular hazards. For example, cross-cutting round timber can cause the blade to grab and bind. This can jerk your hands into the blade or crush your fingers between the wood and the saw table. It is best to hold the timber with a clamp to stop it rolling into the blade. Any blank without support under the point of the cut can tilt into the blade. Sawing spalted wood can sometimes be a problem. You may be pushing the wood into the saw when the blade enters a soft patch and the wood suddenly shoots forward. Never push with your hand in line with the blade. When cutting discs, you may also find the wood shoots forward suddenly when the blade comes out of cut after sawing off the corner of the blank.
Fatal electrocutions are rare, causing only a small percentage of industrial deaths. But electric shocks that fail to kill are much more common. Whether a shock is fatal often comes down to luck – it depends on whether there is a low resistance path for the current to earth. If, for example, you are standing on a wet concrete floor or have your hand on a machine that is earthed, more current will pass through your body, and it may kill you.
Ensure that all wiring and appliances are in sound condition. Check flexes and plugs from time to time. Use an earth leakage device that will disconnect the power in the event of a shock. Don’t use unsuitable electrical equipment in damp conditions. Don’t use makeshift, substandard wiring or ‘temporary’ unsafe fittings.
Slips and trips are the commonest causes of injury in the workplace.
Keep the floor clear of trip hazards and anything slippery, and keep the working area well lit. Don’t climb on makeshift steps or unstable platforms from which you could fall. Repair any holes in the floor. Don’t let cables and hoses trail across the floor. Clear up off-cuts. A floor can become slippery as the surface wears, or if oil finish, wax polish (or wax sealer from turning blanks, a particular problem) or sawdust gets on it, so may need attention. Don’t forget the route to the workshop. If you have to go down an unlit garden path with icy patches and steps, it’s only a matter of time before gravity gets you.
Chucks and bowl blanks, and sharp tools can easily cause serious foot injuries if dropped. Keep working areas tidy so that chucks etc. are less likely to fall. Have a good place to keep tools when they are waiting for use – don’t just perch the skew chisel on the vibrating lathe bed. Wear shoes with steel toecaps.
Back strains caused by lifting are extremely common. Moving logs or machinery can injure you. The risk does not just depend on the weight of the object; other factors are relevant too. For example, if workshop clutter forces you to move awkwardly when you pick up a large bowl blank. Use a trolley to avoid unnecessary lifting. Break the load down if possible. If you have to do some lifting, plan it. Clear the working area so you don’t trip. Get help.
There are several ways in which a fire can start in the workshop. Steel wool very easily ignites from sparks. Oily rags can catch fire spontaneously. Shavings caught up above the bulb of a work lamp can get hot enough to start smouldering, allowing embers to fall into shavings beneath. Cigarettes can fall into shavings. Fire is always dangerous and could destroy the shop, perhaps after you have locked up for the day.
Don’t leave steel wool near sparks from the grinder, or in a drawer with batteries (contact with their terminals will ignite it). Spread out oily rags to dry before disposal. Use cool-running LED lamps, or those with open shades that won’t trap shavings. Keep an extinguisher where you can find it straight away. You know what you should do about smoking – it’s a lot more dangerous than woodturning.
Oh, and don’t superglue yourself to the lathe when there is no-one about to rescue you!