Holistic Safety

Holostic, from ὅλος (holos), the Greek concept that the properties of a system cannot simply be determined or explained simply by looking at the individual component parts. Aristotle summarised it particularly well – “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Safety is a system, and it too is greater than the sum of its parts.  You cannot just take a push stick, a dust mask, some hearing protection (etc) and be able to declare “Now I am Safe”. Only when everything is working together seamlessly is the system complete, and greater than the individual safety steps employed.

Instead, look past the individual components of a safety system and look at how and why our workplace may, or may not be safe.

What I am proposing is looking at the dangers and risks overall, and the finding a system to manage them.

When you walk in the door of your workshop, let’s assume at least until that point you are healthy, and safe.  The objective is to therefore leave the workshop in at least a good a condition (if not better, after all, any shed time always improves my sense of well-being!)

Let’s also assume that the workshop is relatively safe to be in – the atmosphere is not polluted with contaminates, walking around isn’t causing clouds of dust etc. So we are still safe.  So what changes?  When does the workshop go from being in a safe to unsafe condition?  When things are moved and/or started and/or used and/or opened. In other words when we do things in the workshop, so our actions create an unsafe workplace.

If things are stored correctly (timber stacked properly on woodracks, sharp edges not protruding, trip hazards removed or controlled etc) they we should be free to move about the workshop without incident.

Already we are starting to build up a safety system concept.  Everything has a place to be stored, our working environment has a degree of separation from the tools and materials.

When we decide to use a tool, whether it is a sawhorse to hold some timber, a handsaw, chisel, plane, clamp, tablesaw, powered hand tool etc, it needs to be in sufficient condition that it operates as intended, and designed.  Tools meant to be sharp need to be sharp, surfaces that timber is meant to slide on easily should slide easily and so forth.

So the next concept to be integrated into the system is maintenance.

Add another concept – knowledge/experience.  You’ve sufficient knowledge of the machine from past experience, and/or have read and understood the instruction manual to the point that you know how to use the machine as it was intended and designed.

So let’s then focus on an example – using a main workshop machine (such as the tablesaw – after all it would be fair to say it is regarded as one of the more dangerous workshop machines).  It would be fair to say that a machine that was designed correctly, if used as designed, will work safely.  So where is the danger, the risk? By not using the machine correctly.

Set the fence with the tail towards the blade, you get a choke point, and kickback.  Use the saw without a fence, and you are likely to twist the material, get a jamb, and kickback.  Use too much force (and slip) or incorrectly position your hands, and there is a major injury.  A saw won’t cut you unless you present it with something to cut, it won’t throw something at you unless you give it something to throw, or bind on the blade.

A tablesaw is designed to do one thing – spin a bunch of tiny chisels in one plane, and pare away timber causing it to be severed in that plane.  What does it need for that?  A tabletop to support the material and a motor driving a blade. Everything else is used to improve the safety of the operation, and ensure the machine can only do its primary function.  A tablesaw fence? Safety equipment. Mitre Gauge? Safety equipment.  Splitter? Same. Guard? Same again, and so on.

A tablesaw can be used by turning it on and pushing material into it without any other item being bought into play.  But it isn’t safe to do so until you start to utilise the safety system.  Supporting the timber with either a fence or a mitre gauge, extracting dust, setting a proper blade height, extracting dust are all safety steps.  As is the use of featherboards, push sticks, anti-kickback devices.  But the system fall down if components are left out.  A featherboard is useless without the fence.  A fence isn’t as good without a splitter.  Splitters not as useful if material is not properly supported into, out of, and through the blade area.  A 6″ exclusion zone for fingers around a blade.  All this is make sure the machine only does its primary function – cut the timber in two.  Not create a missile (kickback), cut you, catch clothing/hair, jamb, splinter, smash and/or burn (rather than cut) The safety system is more than a sum of the components.

There is the primary function, and result from a machine, but there is also a secondary effect.  A saw may cut boards in two, and if you used enough of the safety system you can do so without incident, but only if you deal with the consequences.  The consequences of cutting timber in two include: relieving internal stresses in the timber so it potentially twists and warps, turning the kerf-width of timber to dust and throwing it into the air, creating larger particles to fly off, and noise.

So the safety system now includes (not limited to, nor necessarily requiring one, more, all or even any of the following) dust mask, dust extraction, eye protection, hearing protection, leather apron, dust filtering and collection.

So don’t look at safety devices as being optional, or secondary to the woodworking operation – they are an integral part of what makes the woodworking experience enjoyable, and ensures that you leave the shed in at least as good a condition as when you entered it, if not better.  Look at the collection of safety items you use, and safety practices you employ as an overall system – as that system is greater than the sum of its parts (and that also works in reverse – leave out a part of the safety system, and the system as a whole suffers more than the subtraction of that part).  Approach safety holistically, not individually.

A system does have to work for, and with you.   It may be practical safety to wear every bit of safety gear, buy every safety item on the market.  Practical, but not necessarily practicable. And that is the subject of tomorrow’s discussion.  Safety Practicability in the Workshop.

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