Workshop Safety 101lewis.yoole
Article written by: David Grinter
If there is one thing you should know thoroughly before you heat or grind your first workpiece, it’s safety. Your equipment, shop layout and work practices should all be designed with safety at the forefront. Making a conscious effort to remain safe might just save your life.
Blacksmithing and knife making can be fun, highly rewarding activities when done safely. It is not our aim to scare people away from these crafts, but to outline the dangers, how to prevent them and how to deal with them if something does go wrong.
You are literally playing with fire when blacksmithing, whether you choose solid fuel or gas, you are dealing with extreme heat, flying scale and hot steel.
The first thing to decide on is the location for your workshop. It is recommended that you don’t set up anywhere within the home as the risk of fire is too great, even if you are only working on knives with a small gas forge. You need to be somewhere dropping your workpiece or setting your quenching oil alight will not end in catastrophe. A small garden shed is all many people need, but please do not set up next to your 2-stroke fuel! If you are in a block of flats, I daresay there are fire regulations preventing forge work, as well as limits on noise. It is important to check with your local fire brigade or RFS to ensure your forge doesn’t breach any regulations – especially during fire bans.
There are a number of things that can cause an unintended fire in your workshop or smithy. Hot scale flies from the workpiece as you work it, and if there is newspaper, wood, leaves – anything flammable, it can result in a fire starting. Limiting the amount of flammable material in your workplace is essential. It is also key to have a functioning hose and/or buckets of water at the ready in case of fire.
Quenching oil – for controlled, rapid cooling of steel and other metals is one highly flammable item smiths will have in their workshop where heat treating is performed. Keep quench oil covered and well away from your forge until you need it. It is easy to become focussed on what you are doing and kick your bucket of quench oil, so make sure it is not in a top-heavy container like a normal conical bucket and that it has a lid that will starve a flash fire when quenching. If you knock it over, have sand or similar on hand to soak it up.
Believe it or not, some people still use a plastic bucket for heat treating and quenching. It is strongly recommended that you don’t do this, particularly for heat treating.
For an oil fire, don’t ever use water to try and put it out. This will only spread the oil and make a bigger fire. Have a fire blanket and CO2 fire extinguisher in your workshop. See NSW Fire Brigade website for more information. If you are unable to extinguish it, get yourself (and anyone else) to a safe place and call 000.
Gas and Particulate Matter
Ventilation is important to keep noxious fumes out of your lungs and eyes. See more about this in Paint and Zinc and also in Solid Fuel or Gas. A good industrial fan is a good choice to blow the fumes away from you and do not work in an enclosed space unless you have a good extraction system. A respirator such as the 3M™ Power Respirator Kits & Accessories is highly recommended when using solid fuel and when dry-grinding. While good ventilation and extraction will eliminate a certain amount of gas and particulate matter, the right respirator will take care of the rest – cutting, sanding, drilling or grinding dust and hard metals, such as tungsten, cobalt, aluminum, and beryllium. Respirators may be uncomfortable, but so are emphysema and mesothelioma. For information on standards and protection levels, check out https://www.3m.com.au/3M/en_AU/company-au/
Our eyes are one of our most valuable assets. It is very important to invest in eye protection. For general purpose protection, you can purchase 3M™ Tinted Smoke Safety Glasses and 3M™ Clear Safety Glasses.
Too often we hear about individuals who have partially or fully lost their hearing due to working in loud environments. You only get two ears. Use appropriately rated earplugs or earmuffs, it is that simple.
Plastic has no place in the forge. Do not use or wear anything made of plastic.
Exposed skin is easily burned, so a sensible choice of clothing is recommended. Wear long trousers and sturdy steel toe-cap boots. (Don’t wear elastic sided boots and shorts) A high-quality leather apron and clothes made from leather, wool or cotton are the most accessible and safest options. Anything made of plastics or poly-cotton blends are a complete no-no as they can burn, melt and stick to the skin.
Gloves are a matter of personal choice. They can mask the fact that the workpiece is heating up quickly in the direction of your hand. Generally, you will be working with tongs and it won’t matter anyway, but sometimes if you have a long piece of steel and your hand is far enough from the hot bit, it is convenient to hold it with your hand. With bare hands, you will know immediately if it needs quenching.
The most commonly used gloves are leather and are essential when handling warm things. However, when forging, leather gloves can mask the heat until the leather begins to burn and shrink – and it can happen before you know it.
Eyes and lungs are precious and don’t recover from injury very well. Add to this, you are dealing with heat and very sharp objects. Your grinder is travelling at many hundreds of RPM and can catch your workpiece. It is important to be aware of the forces at play and the potential direction your blade can be pushed or thrown so that you can keep your fingers and any other body parts with major veins and arteries well away. This is an especially high risk with buffing where the wheel can catch the workpiece and pull it out of your grip. Final grinding of the bevel and honing of the edge should only be done when all other work is completed. Most makers agree that gloves should not be worn at the grinder, due to the risk of them getting caught, and pulling your fingers into the machine.
Ensure you know your first aid for burns, cuts, crushes and eye injuries. There are many good resources on the web and first-aid kits are readily available.
With any craft involving heat, sharp tools and heavy objects, safety is paramount, and experience will tell you more about where the hazards are. Take the time to ensure you and anyone you work with are safe. Blacksmithing and knife making can be a fun, highly rewarding task – when done safely.