Saturday, August 28, 2010


In the early 1970’s when I began my career in woodworking one of my first jobs was as a finishing carpenter working for a contractor from Yugoslavia. With the exception of me and one other carpenter all of the crew were recent immigrants from Yugoslavia. I remember one of my first days on the job; I needed to rip some wood on the table saw. I donned my safety glasses and proceeded with the task. The other carpenters watched me as I worked and when I was finished they mocked me for my use of safety glasses. They told me that using safety glasses was “Canadian” and by inference, wimpy. When they ripped material on the table saw they simply squinted to protect their eyes from slivers and projectiles. Perhaps Yugoslavians had developed stronger eyelashes from thousands of years of evolution. Probably not, the table saw has only been around for a few hundred years. No what these fellows had in common was macho moronic bravado. This, like the habit of whistling at passing women and long haired guys by workers on construction sites, I assumed was a thing of the past.

Not so according to a young fellow who dropped by my shop recently looking for an apprenticeship. This fellow, let’s call him Erik, had taken the entry level trades training for joinery at BCIT and had worked for four months for one of the larger millwork shops in the Vancouver area, this shop was a member of the industry association AWMAC. We chatted for some time about the state of the industry, apprenticeships, and his experiences so far. One of the things that caught his attention in my shop was the panel saw and specifically that the splitter and dust hood, stock safety features were in use. He was impressed because at his former employers these devices were simply removed and discarded as a matter of routine. When he inquired to his foreman why the splitter (the fin like piece of metal behind the blade) was removed he was told that it was "in the way”. He could not get an answer to the question “in the way of what?”

The splitter as shown in the photo above is one of the most ingenious safety features I have seen on a table saw, especially a sliding panel saw. I use my saw for both panels and solid wood. The splitter virtually eliminates the possibility of kickbacks, one of the most serious hazards with these machines. The only situation where the splitter can get in the way is when cutting a kerf part way through the material. In this case the splitter is easily removed in a matter of minutes.

The dust hood which catches as much as 50% of the airborne dust also acts as a very important safety feature preventing the operator from coming in contact with the moving blade. The only time this device is in the way is when ripping narrow parts against the fence. It has a lever on the top which allows the operator to easily lift the hood out of the way allowing the use of a push stick.

Many things disturbed me about Erik’s experience regarding safety procedures on his first job. It is difficult to attract good people to the joinery trade. Maybe part of the reason is because of these stupid attitudes that persist in the industry. It is one thing for a tradesperson to decide for himself to forgo the benefit of a safety device or procedure on the job and take a risk with life and limb but it is quite another to force an apprentice to take that risk by discarding safety devices and preventing him or her from using their own instinct and discretion.

Of course these foolish attitudes toward safety also negatively affect the bottom line for the business, which of course affects wages, which of course affects the ability to attract quality people to the joinery trade.

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