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Safety In The Shop

A note on safety in your shop, lab, work room, basement, etc. As a fossil hunter sometimes the thing that I most look forward to and likewise dread the most is getting my "stuff" back to the house.

I may have to use a pressure washer to blast off mud from my fossilized wood or 40 pound ammonites, use some chemicals to clean lime off some invertebrates or maybe use some tools, be they hand or pneumatic, to chip off the tougher crust. Maybe if I'm lucky I found a good "round" of pet wood that I want to cut and polish down at the club. Ooooh, and I just found my first agate ever and I don't even know what I can do to that yet! What ever it is that I do there is almost always some inherent risk in the process. Below is a list of different hazards to consider in the lab.

Eye protection. As I mentioned above power washing is a good example of something a lot of us do that can potentially injure your eyes however certainly not the only thing. Almost every type of prep-work that we practice necesitates eye protection: grinding, polishing, cutting, shipping, sand blasting, soldering, chemical cleaning, etc. Different types of eye protection should be used depending on your activities. For most of us protective glasses are good, however, goggles may need to be worn when using chemicals or when grinding certain materials. As co-worker of mine once said to a lady that liked to put on makeup while driving, "no matter how advanced modern medicine has become, glass eyes still don't look real."

Respiratory protection. Similar in some ways to eye protection respiratory protection can be very important when handling certain cleaning chemicals and when dealing with certain dusts. Asbestos is a common example of a respirable dust that although not inherently toxic can cause cancer, especially with smokers. Other dusts can temporarily clog breathing passages thus impacting, sometimes critically, the body's ability to get oxygen into the blood. Chemicals can be very bad, too, as the lungs can quickly introduce toxins into the blood. Of note some of the oils that we use in our cutting saws can be dangerous. Keep in mind that dust masks may not stop some dusts and certainly no airborne chemicals.

Chemical safety. The most common chemical accidents usually have something to do with the above mentioned issues and involve acids, soaps, other caustics and solvents. PLEASE READ the safety notes or MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) on all chemicals you may use. Some need to be used in areas where there is good ventilation, others require high-end respirators and still more may necessitate protective clothing. Not common in the shop, but you never know! Also, be aware of the potential danger of mixing chemicals and as a general rule don't do it. Most of us have probably heard that mixing chlorine and ammonia, two of our most common household chemicals is bad. Essentially the mixing of the two releases chlorine into your air - very bad.

Hearing protection. What? You didn't hear me the first time? Do you remember the pictures of all the trees blown down in the same direction after Mount St. Helens erupted? Loud noise does the same thing to the ear and much like the trees once the filia (hearing fibers) are damaged they don't stand themselves back up. If you think 'maybe I should be wearing ear plugs' then it's usually a good indication that you already answered the question.

<Electrical and Fire hazards. If your shop is like mine then it can get pretty cluttered. Bottles of flammables may end up next to overloaded electric outlets or boxes of old journals. Cleaning up the clutter has two (or more) benefits by reducing fire hazards and making it more obvious where potential problems exist - like damaged electrical cords or overloaded outlets. Ideally flammable liquids will be stored in a flammables storage cabinet. If you have a pretty good sized shop then one of these is a good investment. For most clubs the local fire code will require enough to handle what you have on site.

The hazards involving fire and electrical vary in type and risk level. Having been “grounded" on four different occasions I can tell you that water and electrical cords do not mix! I used to work as a caretaker for saltwater fish tanks and it had its challenges... Overloaded plugs can be a problem in our shops. Keep in mind that just because a tool isn't turned on doesn't necessarily mean that electricity still isn't running through it. Fire and shock are both risks in this situation. It's safer to keep your equipment unplugged and properly stored when not in use.

For some general rules: Always wear eye protection. Keep your shops cleaned and well organized. Make sure electrical chords are in good condition. Keep reactive things away from each other, be they chemicals, electrical, fire hazards or combinations of each. Don't mix chemicals. Practice safety in your shops!

by Owen Martin, AFMS Safety Chair AFMS Newsletter - Dec. 2009 - Jan. 2010