The Safety of Cutting Tools

DSC_0021American woodworkers do not enjoy quite the same protections that European woodworkers do. Working with cutting tools is serious business and quite apart from the basics, such as wearing eye protection, using saw guards and other common sense precautions, there is no U.S. standard norm that dictates safety features in the manufacture of a cutting tool itself. So, when buying a cutting tool you are really at the mercy of the manufacturer and can only hope they know at what point the risk is too high and the request to quote or make must be turned down.

The first and most important consideration in the design of a cutting tool is safety. A poorly designed tool can result in catastrophic accidents that can maim someone permanently.

In Germany, for instance, anyone engaged in the manufacture of cutting tools is required to know the rules and to adhere to them at all times. According to the Accident Prevention Directives of the Association of Woodworking Careers which is the oversight authority for the industry workers (Holzberufsgenossenschaft), the employer must have all cutting tools made, serviced and assembled by competent individuals, i.e. an individual who, based on his/her trade, education and experience has sufficient knowledge in the area of tool maintenance, worker safety standards, accident prevention rules and is familiar with the technical aspects that he/she can accurately judge the condition of any cutting tool for its safe operation.

Tool marking requirements, such as exhibiting maximum allowable rpm of the tool and rotation indicators are great examples of very basic safety directives that are not required in the US and are generally absent on tools manufactured in North America. Another example is re-tipping saw blades. In general, by the time a carbide saw blade has run its course of 7 to 10 sharpenings, the saw plate is fatigued and ready for retirement. You could compare this to a marathon runner. Re-tipping a saw blade, would be like meeting a Marathon runner at the finish line, giving him/her a new pair of shoes and say “do another Marathon!”. The folks who support the argument of re-tipping a blade are doing so out of a lack of understanding how big a role the integrity of the saw plate itself plays in cutting performance and tool life.
An employer who allows his blades to be re-tipped is running an enormous financial liability risk. Imagine a tip came off a newly re-tipped blade and hits the saw operator? The manufacturers warranty and insurance will be void, and the saw shop is often not much more than a one-man shop. Often the small service shops don’t even carry liability insurance.

It is not unusual to see cutting tools in U.S. woodworking plants that would not meet European Safety Standards for safe operation. There are relationships between shank diameter and overall diameter (on router bits), and cutter or saw diameter versus arbor diameter that cannot be overridden. Bottom line is, when it comes to cutting tools don’t take any chances and know who you are dealing with!
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