I know that I am over a week late for Woodworker's Safety Week, but life has been a bit hectic around my house because of a woodworking-related accident. Warning -- while the images presented here are of partially healed wounds, they are still slightly graphic and may be disturbing to some readers…
Life has a way of throwing me curveballs. I talked of the sudden need to remove two large pear trees from my yard in my last post (of nearly one month ago). In my haste to clear the debris from our front-side yard, I dragged several sizeable branches into the backyard, nearer the woodpile, for easier processing and stacking. I knew that with the limbs back there, I could cut it all up when time allowed. They sat there for nearly two weeks. I finally got around to chain-sawing them up on a Saturday afternoon.
I have had my share of close calls in the shop. I have, on occasion, drawn back a hand, fully expecting to see a bloody stump, when all it amounted to was a slight flesh wound. I like to think that the close calls have made me a bit wiser. I actively plan an “exit strategy” when working with power tools. My mind has become adept at processing eventualities, thinking two or three steps ahead and acknowledging the what-ifs. But then I guess that is why they are called accidents, and accidents don’t simply befall the unprepared.
I am also keenly aware of the dangers that woodworking offers visitors to my shop. I rarely, if ever, continue working when someone enters my workspace. The uninitiated are often also unaware. On the rare occasion that I allow someone (usually one of my three kids) to stand and watch, I give instruction on where to safely stand, and I usually provide them with eye and ear protection. On the even rarer occasion that I need an extra set of hands when using a power tool (i.e. ripping a sheet of plywood), I only trust my Dad, and now, my well-trained wife, to help. Even when I have a trusted helper, I feel responsible for his/her safety, and my mind begins processing an “exit strategy” for him/her as well. But then I guess that is why they are called accidents, and accidents don’t simply befall the unaware.
On that Saturday afternoon, the kids were all watching a video, and my wife happened outside to check on me just as I was heading out to process the limbs.
“I’m gonna go ahead and cut up the rest of that Pear. Do you wanna help stack?”
We proceeded to the backyard, and as I fired up the chainsaw, a thought flashed into my head… “Keep an eye on her!”. I began cutting the Pear into firewood lengths, and after a bit of a head start, my lovely wife began to duck in, grab a freshly-cut piece and place it into the stack. Now, a chainsaw is not something to mess with. There are power tools that will hurt you, and then there are power tools that will MANGLE you.
A chainsaw can fall into this second category. I have used a chainsaw quite a bit and have even done several chainsaw carvings. I’m pretty comfortable with one, but I also have a very healthy respect for what can go wrong. I make a conscious effort to not stand in line with the bar in case of kickback; I know the danger zones of the bar that cause kickback; I am watchful of surrounding obstacles that could trip, trap or tangle, and when working in the proximity of someone else, I mentally maintain about a five-foot solitary confinement bubble, my no-fly-zone. I don’t want anyone else in the danger zone while I’m running the saw.
My wife was getting perilously close. A thought flashed through my head… “She is not paying attention!” I stood (although I didn’t stop the saw) and motioned for her to get behind me and tossed a log to her newly suggested position. Satisfied that danger had been averted, I returned to cutting, pausing after each cut to grab the new piece and toss or “hike” it behind me before cutting another piece.
That is when it happened.
I had just tossed another piece when I suddenly hear an ear-piercing scream from behind me. A scream that could be heard over the sound of the saw and through my ear protection. A scream that brought neighbors running. A scream that was primal to the core. I turned around to find my wife holding a profusely bleeding hand and continuing to scream her head off. We scuttled her around to the shop and got some shop towels on it to stop the bleeding. I couldn’t initially understand what had happened and though I hadn’t felt the saw make contact with her, I, like the neighbors, was expecting that she had been injured by the chainsaw.
As it turns out, she had been picking up one of the logs when I tossed another toward her without looking. Now I have smashed a finger before, but not like this! Not only was her right ring finger pointing in an odd direction, but the crushing injury had exploded the finger with several lacerations. A trip to our favorite emergent care physician revealed that she had not only fractured the distal aspect of the middle phalanx, but had also severed the extensor tendon.
After two orthopedic consultations and two weeks of complete immobilization, it appears that surgery may be warranted. We will know after a pending consultation with a hand surgeon. At a minimum, we are looking at several more weeks immobilized followed by numerous physical therapy sessions.
My wife is a wonderfully forgiving woman, and while her inattention may have contributed to the accident, I am truly responsible. It turns out that this accident wasn’t directly related to the use of woodworking tools, but it serves as a warning of the dangers inherent in all aspects of woodworking. We cannot expect to be completely aware of or fully prepared for ALL the hazards that surround us and our helpers, no matter how many articles we read. But then I guess that is why they are called accidents, and accidents don’t simply befall the unread.