There is one constant in the world of hardware hacker’s workshops, be they a private workshop in your garage or a public hackspace, and it goes something like this:
Everybody’s a safety expert in whatever it is they are working with, right up until the accident.
In other words, it is very tempting to harbour a cavalier attitude to something that either you are familiar with or the hazards of which you do not understand, and this breeds an environment in which mishaps become a distinct possibility.
As hardware people, we are familiar with basic tool safety or electrical safety. The chances are that we’ve had it drummed into us at some time in our growing up, by a lab supervisor, a workshop teacher, or a parent. That you as readers and I as writer have survived this long is testament enough to the success of that education. But what about those areas in which we may not have received such an education, those things which we either encounter rarely or seem harmless enough that their safety needn’t be our concern? Chemicals, for example: everything from glue through solvents and soldering consumables to PCB chemicals and even paint. It all seems safe enough, what could possibly go wrong? The answer to that question is probably something most of us would prefer never to find out, so it’s worth looking in to how a well-run workshop can manage its chemicals in as safe a manner as possible.
Read the instructions
This might seem like something so obvious as to go without saying, but when you acquire a chemical, read its instruction sheet. It will have one somewhere in its packaging, or if not then there will be one available for download on its manufacturer’s web site. On it you will find all the information you should need about its likely hazards, how it should be used, and how it should be stored. From this information you can decide the most appropriate course of action for you to take with whatever the chemical is.
Know what you’ve got
It can be easy to amass a variety of tins, jars, bottles, and tubes of random chemicals over a lifetime of tinkering. Over time it can also be easy to lose track of exactly what your collection contains. Labels fade and drop off, you lose track of where you put that bottle, and you no longer know what you’ve got.
In some jurisdictions there is a legal requirement for commercial organisations to maintain an inventory of their chemical stocks. Though it might seem onerous, this is a worthwhile practice for any workshop even when it is not required by law. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a simple notebook will do, because it really helps to have some idea what you have. If something does cause an accident then knowing something about the likely source can help you a lot in terms of how you might deal with it.
Store everything appropriately.
This comes back to the earlier point about reading the data sheet. On it you’ll find details of how the product should be stored. If you are lucky it is an inert, non-corrosive and non-toxic solid that gives off no fumes and which you can store anywhere with impunity. It’s far more likely though that it will contain a solvent that gives off fumes, be flammable, an oxidising agent, or any one of a number of other hazards. You should therefore think not just about how it should be stored, but what it should be stored alongside.
Just as one example, it’s most likely that the majority of workshop chemicals will be of the variety containing a flammable solvent. These should be stored in a fireproof cabinet sitting in a spill tray, to both contain any fires within the cabinet and to contain any liquid spills. You might think that this would be a safe place to also store any other chemicals, but since each has its own requirements that might not be the case. Oxidising agents for example should not be stored alongside flammable solvents.
As a final point, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should chemicals be stored in the same place as food, such as a shared refrigerator. This might seem an obvious thing to say, but in communal workshops such as a hackspace it seems that there is always a member who considers that this restriction does not apply to them. If you are on the board of such a space, bin the chemical in question and ban the member. It’s far easier to do that than to deal with the police when someone is poisoned.
Keep on top of it
You might think that if you have a list of what you’ve got, and it’s all stored appropriately, that would be enough. But there is always scope for a disparity to creep in, someone puts something in the wrong cupboard, or fails to enter it in the book. Therefore you should undertake the tedious task once in a while of running an inventory. Check what you have in your inventory with what you have in your stores, and adjust accordingly.
Dispose of it appropriately
There will always come a moment when some chemical or other has outlived its usefulness, at which point it must be disposed of. The data sheet will tell you the appropriate place to dispose of it, and you should follow its advice. If you are lucky it will be something you can simply toss in the garbage, if not you may have to find your local chemical disposal point. Some common chemicals we might find in our workshops will especially need proper disposal, for example spent PCB etchant, in which the copper salts are particularly toxic to fish.
Ensure everybody is on the same page
There is little use in having a carefully planned system for managing your chemicals if it is not universally adhered to. Particularly in a shared space there will always be users who consider their qualifications to be such that the system does not apply to them, it is imperative that you ensure that all users treat it with due respect. If necessary institute a system for your shared space in which access to the chemicals is only gained after suitable training has been passed, and be prepared to wield the threat of removal of the privilege for those who fail to adhere to it.
We are fortunate in the world of hardware hackers and makers, that for most of us the chemicals we are likely to encounter will be an order of magnitude safer than those you might encounter in for example a chemistry lab. But we still encounter significant hazards, for example anyone with a 3D printer might care to look at the effects of an acetone fire. It is hoped that the points above should give us all a starting point for safe handling and storage of the chemicals in our workshops. After all, we’d all prefer to spend more time making things than explaining to fire officers exactly what the person they’re going in to rescue might have been using.