How To: Saw Safely

Prevent sawing accidents and injury by following these safety guidelines

Photo: Flickr

Every time you use a power saw, you put your very own flesh and blood at risk. I’ve worked with more contractors than I like to think about who have lost fingers or sustained other injuries thanks to the powerful tools of the trade. According to the U.S. Con­sumer Product Safety Com­mission, in 1991 alone, nearly 12,000 people re­quired emergency-room treat­ment for circular saw-related injuries.

I’ve observed that two kinds of sawers are the most likely to get hurt. The most obvious is the raw rookie, the person who uses a powerful cutting tool in ignorance. Ironically, the other class of workers that are in danger are the veterans who use their tools constantly, espe­cially to perform repetitious tasks. Using the saw seems so natural, so automatic as to be second nature: then, the worker loses concentration and an accident happens.

Never take a tool for granted, no matter how familiar with it you may be. Just about any cir­cular saw, whether it’s a port­able, chop box, or table saw, can take off a fingertip—or more—in a second. Reciprocating saws require careful use as well.

The good news is that most ac­cidents are preventable if these and other cutting tools are treated with respect and care. Employ the following strategies for avoiding mishaps.

Establish a pattern. The first time and every time you use a power tool, do so from a balanced, comfortable stance. Once the workpiece is marked, locate it securely on a sawhorse, bench, or tabletop. Position the tool, too, so that your cutting stroke is easy and logical. Avoid awkward positioning.

Plan, pause, and then power up. Once you are in position, mentally cut the piece. Are there any obstructions to the blade (that means in the piece itself, like old nails) or beneath the piece (like the top of your work surface)? Will the saw blade bind? Will the waste fall safely out of the way? Once the piece is cut, will either end be unbalanced and fall awkwardly, sending you or your saw for a ride? If you’re using a portable power tool, where will you put it after the cut has been made? 

I suggest you make it a habit to pause for one moment each time you make a cut and ask yourself three more little ques­tions, even if you’re making a cut identical to one you made a minute ago: First, are you wearing your safety glas­ses? Second, is the blade clear? And, third, are both of your hands safely positioned?

Keep your work-site neat. Too much sawdust, carelessly strewn chunks of wood, piles of stock, or snaking power cords are all threats to the sawyer. A minor stumble with a spinning saw blade at hand can be disastrous.

Use only sharp blades. A dull blade is an invitation to trouble and leads to unneces­sary wear and tear on your equipment. With a dull blade, you’ll find yourself forcing the cut. Before replacing blades, always disconnect the saw from its power source.

Wear protective equip­ment. Always wear your safety glasses: a scratched cornea, or worse, is never more than one tiny airborne sliver away. Other protective gear, like gloves and ear protection, may be appropriate, too.

Maintain your equipment. Check to be sure that the blade guard is functioning properly. In the case of a port­able circular saw, the spring-loaded lower guard should pivot back into the blade hous­ing as you cut, then automat­ically return to position after the cut. If the guard doesn’t work, set it aside to get repaired and use another saw until it is in safe condition again.

Unless the tool is double-insulated, it should be equipped with a three-prong grounded plug. Do not remove the third prong. Three-pronged plugs should be plugged into a matching electrical receptacle or into adapters used with the ground wires properly attached.

Some woodworkers complain that blade guards on table saws obstruct their vision. On the other hand, surveys sug­gest (no surprise here) that ac­cidents are much less frequent on a properly protected table saw. Use the guards you have and install one if there is not.

The switch location on table and radial arm saws and other fixed power tools is impor­tant. It should be within reach; switches that can be turned off without letting go of the workpiece, like loot-operated models, are a sen­sible precaution.

Don’t forget periodically to in­spect your power cords, be­cause a cord in poor condition can be an electric shock just waiting to happen. In general, maintain your tools properly, whether it’s lubricating your worm-saw or cleaning the accumulated saw­dust out of the table-saw hous­ing.

Remember, safety saves time. If all these preparations sound time-consuming, keep in mind that injuries are ex­pensive, both in emergency- room bills and in lost time. You will also find that a little planning for safety often produces other efficiencies. The better organized you are and the more you make every operation a logical routine, the less time you spend look­ing for tools, randomly moving stock, and rushing into costly mistakes.