Overconfidence and Incompetence, Both can Lead to Injuries from Power Tools

Well, I guess today’s post is a little self confession. Like many of you I do construction work.  I have been doing it since before I could drive.  I have also gotten into the bad habit of taking shortcuts when it comes to safety.  Saturday I was finishing up on a wainscot job, but I had to do a detail cut to fit the wood around a central air intake.

Safety Gear Only Works When It's Used

Now what tool would you use to cut 1/4 inch thick wainscoting. WhatI chose was the wrong tool. Instead of grabbing my Bosch Jig Saw, which is an amazing saw and meant for this, it was still in it’s case from the previous weekend, my Oscillating tool, it was upstairs, a router table, I would have to change bits, I chose convenience over practicality, my Bosch 36 Volt cordless saw that I had been using to make cuts on dimensional lumber. The Bosch cordless set-up is sweet, nice power, a Freud, thin-kerf Silver Ice blade and it gets used, a lot. I grab it for all but the thickest material. There are no cords to deal with. The Freud blade has little tear out and if I could put the whole set-up on rails I would.

How would you secure the wood? Did I put it on my work bench, no it was in the garage. On my Skil X-bench, no it was folded up. Even clamped to a picnic table would have worked.  For whatever reason I decided to free cut the piece.  Even worse I decided to free cut while sitting down. What happened next I am not quite sure. But about half way through the cut, I felt and heard the cutting of cloth and unfortunately my leg.  At first I thought it was a scratch, there was no severe pain…yet!  So I went along my merry way and went inside to get my jig saw, thinking to myself how lucky I was.  Well I happened to look at the jeans I had on and the tell-tale sign of a bad laceration was evident. The Freud blade was so sharp that the cut it made was so clean, that little tearing was done.  The other stupid moment I had was not setting my blade depth. I had it fully out as I had been cutting 2 x4s previous to this.

One of the greatest benefits, if not the greatest, of being a scoutmaster for nearly 20 years is the level of first aid training we receive. Usually we get to practice our skills on teenagers and we see a variety of injuries, some every day nicks and breaks and other times, we see more serious conditions.  I went upstairs to find my first aid kit and I had no super glue and I had no large bandages. Looking at the depth of the cut, I knew I had best get to the emergency room.  So I changed into shorts so that the Doctor could do what he needed without cutting my jeans into pieces.  My 11 year old daughter Elizabeth was sound asleep in the den and I woke her with the infamous quote, “wake up sweetie, dad has to go the hospital.”    I wrapped my leg in a towel as I didn’t want her to see the wound, thinking it would make her nauseous. I was wrong.

We drove an hour to the nearest emergency room. I had tried to reach my sister a doctor in Birmingham which is 90 minutes away, but I couldn’t get her.  I had never used the hospital  we were going to and the only doctor I knew that worked there was an Oncologist and well, my cut may have been bad, but all things being relevant, it was not cancerous.  Driving into the emergency room parking lot, there were just a few cars.  In Birmingham, my average waiting time in emergency rooms is measured in hours, usually many hours.  I filled out some paperwork and the receptionist told me to come on back.  Wow, at least i can wait in a room and watch television. The lady told me my daughter could stay in the waiting room, but I told her no, it was OK for her to come back with me. Frankly I needed the company.

No more than a minute later, my vitals were being taken and I was led back to another  exam room.  Immediately, a nice lady came in and began asking questions about the accident. She then asked me about preference of staples or sutures and I asked what is the benefit of staples. When I was told I needed a staple remover to take the staples out, I opted for the sutures.  I guess I was surprised when the same lady who had asked me the last set of questions began threading the needle, I read her name tag and saw nurse practitioner, and I thought, “oh great, I don’t even rate a doctor,  all I get is someone practicing to be a nurse.”  What followed was a rapid fire set of questions, that were handled very well. I didn’t know what a nurse practitioner was. Turns out, I had an instructor from University Hospital, one of the top teaching hospitals in the world and needless to say in very good hands.

Did I mention the pain had kicked in at this point?  At the hospital they may you turn your injured extremity into shapes you wouldn’t do even if it weren’t injured and pulling muscles that had been severed, well, it hurt.  The Nurse practitioner asked me to lay my leg on its side, I winced, but when she told me I would feel a small prick, I knew pain relief was on its way. My 11 year old stepped over to watch. I thought she would be queasy, but nope. After years of watching Discovery Channel series featuring surgeries and other emergency room dramas, it didn’t seem to faze her; at all. I wanted to tell her, hey this is your dad on the table and not some made for TV med reality show.

Within a few minutes, the stitches were done and I was booted out to the payment center. The girl at this window admonished me to be “more careful, power tools are dangerous.”  I almost smarted off with a “duh, take a look at my leg.”  I did a lot of things wrong that made this trip to the hospital possible. I was in a hurry. I chose the wrong tool. I didn’t set the depth on my saw to the proper setting.  I didn’t secure my workpiece to a stable clean workspace.  The part that makes me more culpable than my readers is that I have all of the right equipment, including safety gear.  Irony of ironies, my daughter had seen a pair of chain saw chaps and asked me if I had ever seen chaps before. I told her, sure, I had a pair, but rarely wore them as they were hot and a ghastly orange color.

Bottom line in hindsight is that tools don’t normally know the difference between wood and skin or muscle. I know the SawStop table saws have that feature, but that is the exception. I get away with not following safety procedures most of the time, but all it takes is once.  Overconfidence can kill just as readily as incompetence.  I had grown too comfortable with my circular saw set-up and I paid the price.  Around table saws, band saws, chain saws and routers I practice safety. But some tools, such as rotary tools, drills and circular saws I have become lackadaisical with.  I am sure you probably do the same.

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