Canadian Woodworking

Shop safety: Where do we draw the line?

Blog by Rob Brown

My column last week elicited a number of comments. Not surprisingly, all were in support of advocating for shop safety.

However, one reader didn’t think my video showed enough respect for safety, especially considering that my main talking point was, in fact, about safety.

I don’t think the commenter was necessarily wrong, but I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as it first seems. One of the main questions I raise in these sorts of discussions is where do we draw the line? What is safe enough? By taking part in almost any operation in a workshop you risk injury, even if you’re being very safe. We’re obviously trying to minimize the risk while we work, but I don’t think anyone, if they’re being honest, would say risk can be completely eliminated.

When it comes to shop safety, I think we can all agree on the basics: proper electrical supply; adequate lighting; a vaguely clean floor; push sticks; safety glasses; and steel toe boots when needed. Making sure tools are sharp would surely make that list, too. As they say, a sharp tool is a safe tool. We could probably come up with a few dozen more basic safety guidelines for shop use.

The discussion gets muddy when we ask what’s next. Dust respirator? Fire extinguisher? First aid kit? Eye wash station? These could all help out, but how many of us have these things in our shop? Many would say working with someone else nearby would be a smart idea, as they could do everything from making lifting easier to calling 911 in the event of a serious emergency. Having said that, I think many of you might say working with someone else could actually increase the level of danger from time to time, depending on their skill level and their approach to safety. Things are starting to get very murky and we haven’t even touched on guards and other workshop safety devices and general practices.

Back to my video

Returning to the specific topic of the video I posted last week, and the level of safety I was showcasing in it, one reader mentioned how I made the video on a table saw with no overhead guard or splitter / riving knife, and that instructional videos from a reputable, experienced maker / publication have an obligation to do better.

I staged the content in the video last week for my weekly column. That wasn’t some footage of me actually working on a project. The saw happened to be set up to plow a shallow 1/4″ groove with my dado set, so I didn’t have a splitter / riving knife installed at the time. When I replaced the dado set with a crosscut blade so I could make the video, I didn’t add the splitter, as I knew I would just be crosscutting a small piece of plywood, then I’d have to reinstall the dado set on the saw to make more dado grooves later on. I have an overhead guard, but I honestly don’t use it too often. I made the cuts in the video without a riving knife or guard.

Although I’m just making an assumption here, I doubt the commenter would have encouraged the use of a splitter for these simple cuts. I’m guessing it was more of a “showcase a best practice” situation, where he thought I should have been using a splitter in any table saw video I made for our audience.

I’m not trying to say a splitter or guard are never needed, but when they are needed will depend on the user and the operation being undertaken. Hence, my main question about where “the line” is. First, when do we, as individual users, decide that it’s time to up the level of safety for an upcoming operation? And second, when should Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement use a safety device and when is it not needed?

When it comes down to it, I would trust some users to make these decisions, while others are far too confident about their skill level to make a good decision or, at the very least, unaware of the dangers that lurk around each corner while operating machinery in a woodworking shop. But then again, maybe it’s not about the level of skill level someone has. Maybe we should all be hitting a very high safety bar when we’re in the shop, no matter of how much we know or how much experience we have.

What do other publications do?

After thinking about this for a while, I decided to check what other publications show, in terms of table saw safety, in their print pages. I leafed through a few I had on hand, looking for table saw operations. While the operations differed greatly in their level of danger (cutting a very shallow and narrow rabbet vs ripping large chunks of lumber) none of the images showed a guard. About half showed a splitter.

I’ve received many messages from folks about this sort of topic before. The vast majority support reducing the level of safety protection used in an image so they’re able to see the operation. Only a couple of readers over the years have expressed their desire to see more guards or safety devices being used, and therefore see less of the operation being featured in our pages. Guards obscure a lot of important details in images, and if you’re trying to learn how to do something properly it’s important to be able to see these details.

Similar to driving a car

I see this discussion similar to driving a car on a highway. Sadly, many people die each year in highway traffic collisions. Helmets would certainly save some lives, as would even safer seat belts. I’d bet more stringent safety rules surrounding the quality of tires on a vehicle would reduce tire explosions and increase traction, especially in bad weather, but most provinces don’t even require winter tires and judging by the amount of exploded tires I see on highways, the bar isn’t set overly high when it comes to tire quality. Lowering speed limits and increasing enforcement would also reduce deaths. But none of these are on the table, as we’ve drawn the line a bit lower than these safety precautions.

Did you think my video last week was inappropriate and lacked respect for common safety practices? Where do you draw the safety line while spending time in your shop? And have you ever wished (after the fact) that you had used a safety device or procedure?

Last modified: November 15, 2023

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches


  1. Safety is sort like the sermons from my minister…if I don’t hear them, I fail to be better. If I don’t hear of people hurt by power tools, I forget how dangerous they are. I’ve had my own accidents, and in regards to the tool and techinque used I’ve become much more carefull. But, the other tools…untill you almost have an accident, or actually do, it’s on me to constantly reminde my self of what to do to avoid or minimize. And is wood dust an accident? I make dust all the time, with seldom wearing a mask…or use volitile chems in finishes that should have me wearing a resperator…but seldom do. Oh my!

  2. Everyone works the grey areas when it comes to safety. A couple over the speed limit, carrying a bit more weight than we should, t.s.anti-kickback pawls removal, etc. Shop instructors have a big responsibility ensuring learning students are safe and also have a vested interest in that regard. In our workshops, we all address the ‘grey’ areas differently. Hopefully though, we all address them well enough to ensure our safety. My point is, without disregarding the very important black and white safety procedures, let’s not get bogged down in the mire and the muck of ‘grey’ areas and get on with the excellent FWW articles Rob and others are presenting through FWW.
    Contrary to popular opinion, the guy at the coffee shop with the least fingers does NOT have the most credibility. 🙂

  3. Hi folks. When I was first learning about shop safety I had a wonderful teacher who left an indelible mark on me that has lived in me since; more than 50 years now! He taught me that there is shop safety AND tool safety. Not a hard concept to understand once it’s pointed out. The thing that sticks with me the most is the use of tools, especially power tools. I still prefer hand tools but sometimes a power tool can come in handy. His method of teaching was to have each of his students write down how they intended, step by step, to make a cut. If an important step was missed then he would go through them as many times as needed before he would allow a student to touch or turn on a power tool. I understand the need for visual expediency when trying to plan and show how a cut is made, but always with the caveat that there is never a wasted moment in the over-abundance of safety. Just my two cents…made with all five fingers 🙂

  4. You are right on and you have covered all the bases. I am a retired Machinist and Tool and Die maker that has 43 years in the trades. My last 20+ years were as an instructor at a trades school. I always stressed safety in the shop and one of my “show and tell” examples, that worked well, was the scars on my hands from some of the dumb decisions that I made in the past. Trying to hold a piece on the drill press without a clamp or at least a stop bolt being one of the big ones—and I could go on forever about shop safety. Now that I am retired and getting into woodworking all the safety rules still apply. One thing about this woodworking–wood never stops moving and I can’t stick it in the heat treating furnace to stop the stuff from moving plus grain direction with wood is just as important (or more so) as it is with aircraft parts. You hit the nail on the head and always put your brains in gear before you hit the start button.

  5. I posted last time the single most important safety thing a person can do is pay attention. No safety tool, guard, or special devise is going to stop you from getting hurt if you’re not paying attention.

    Funnily enough seat belts actually injure more people than they save. Just ask a chiropractor how many people they see because of seatbelts. Sadly you cant ask those that burnt or drowned in car because of seatbelt not releasing.

  6. Well coach, that was a very well written, deep thought article of self reflection. When learning any skill from a professional teacher or coach it is imperative to acknowledge the steps necessary to safely execute a task. As a refernce to sport no coach would remove the safety gear from a player so they can see and hear better while executing a skill they are teaching. Enjoyed your article, focus on safety in shop is awesome. Reducing visits to emergency is priority one to enjoy woodworking.

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