Hackerspaces Are Hard: Safety

Safety is one of those topics that often elicits a less-than-serious response from some tool users. For these folks, they assume their elite skills will protect them and as long as they pay attention, they never will get hurt. This explains the prevalence of the nickname “Stubby” among this population. On the opposite end of the spectrum, safety is also one of those areas where people who don’t know a lot about tools can overreact. Imagine a whole table of kids wearing goggles as one of them gingerly melts some solder. You don’t want solder in your eye, but that’s just not going to happen under normal circumstances.

And then there are freak accidents, which are a reality. On September 20th, a leaking propane tank exploded at Sector67’s new workshop, severely injuring Chris Meyer. Far from a noob, Chris is one of the most experienced people in the shop and was a co-founder of the space. He has a long road of healing ahead of him, and as seems to be the sad necessity these days, he has a GoFundMe campaign to help both with his medical expenses and to help refurbish the workshop. The Foothills Community Workshop also burned to the ground recently, although fortunately no one was injured.

All in all, hackerspaces seem to be reasonably safe, particular considering the challenges they face — or more fairly, the risks associated with the typical hackerspace’s openness. Most hackerspaces allow anyone who pay dues to be a member. There is a wide range of backgrounds, competencies, and judgments represented with, how shall I put it, some unusual viewpoints that might hinder rule-following. And once the member has a fob or key, it’s open season on any kind of tool in the place right? Not everything can have a lock on it.

Here are a few simple rules that have emerged over the years, and may help your hackerspace navigate the twin dangers of complacency and paralyzed fear while preparing for the freak accidents that may simply come to pass.

Freak Accidents Happen

Safety isn’t a promise that nothing will go wrong. It’s a series of steps you take to ameliorate recognized hazards while trying to prepare for unpredictable accidents, in order to achieve an acceptable level of risk.

No one sets out to get injured. For every neophyte with a finger in a bag of ice, there’s a grizzled veteran with two fingers in a bag of ice. You can only pay attention and educate yourself, but you should always assume Chaos will enter into the picture.

Don’t Do Dangerous Things Alone

… because when Chaos does show up, you don’t want to be fumbling with your phone on the floor; you want to be yelling out to your buddy to call the ambulance. This rule is simple: don’t be the only person in the space when you use any tool that can severely injure you.

At the same time, you can be injured at any time. In 2011, I had to go to Urgent Care when I cut my finger open trying to scrape a print off of our CupCake’s build platform (foolishly) with a pocket knife.

You can see the final photo I took before I got hurt to the right. My buddy Ray Connors was a ‘Nam medic, and happened to be in the space, and bound up the wound so I could drive to the doctor’s office.

Ideally, your buddy will do more than just drag you to the doctor’s office. If you’re using a tool wrong, or are very tired, rushed, or otherwise cruising for a injury, that person should let you know.

It’s easy to take this too far. What, you can’t use a kitchen knife because no one else is home? I think the cutoff (sorry) might be any tool that could sever a limb or cut into your body past the skin, or cause you to be unable to help yourself. This rule is not about your knowledge and competence. It’s about Chaos, and minimizing the extent of damage in the worst case scenario.

Appoint a Safety Expert

Recruit someone to be the hackerspace’s safety expert, willing to read up on code and regulations, and to discover the best practices of other spaces. Finding someone to deep-dive into safety and regulations also helps the collective become aware of non-obvious safety issues like fumes, EM radiation, and noise. They also ensure that membership agreements and liability waivers are signed. Toronto’s Site3 CoLaboratory did a good presentation on buckling down on safety after an unfortunate wood shop accident:

Don’t Skimp on Safety Infrastructure

If there is a pile of goggles in the wood shop, users are more likely to wear them. It’s important for spaces to make safety infrastructure a priority. Maybe it’s an eyewash station or another first aid kit. The fire marshal will tell you if you need fire doors, sprinkers, and extinguishers. Don’t be those guys who get closed down for code violations.

There are some non-obvious items as well. For instance, in this day of near-ubiquitous mobile phones, it’s still important to have a regular landline in the space so emergency services can be called by someone who doesn’t have a working phone.

Safety infrastructure also includes buying safer tools. A lot of wood shops have invested in SawStop table saws, which have a capacitive sensor on the saw blade that instantly stops the blade if it touches skin or metal.

Upgrading your safety infrastructure isn’t just for preventing accidents. If you’re operating a safe shop with building codes followed and safety equipment in place, you’ll also make your insurance person happy and that means lower rates for the space.

Appoint Department Captains

The board can’t own every area, so recruiting area experts is a necessity. The person who knows how to change the bandsaw’s blade should also be conversant on safety issues associated with the saw. The metal shop manager needs to know how to safely vent welding fumes and protect passers-by from UV light.

By having content experts training in newbies and monitoring the area, it’s safer for everyone.

  • Train or “check out” users on dangerous tools.
  • Maintain tools — dull blades and faulty equipment hurt people. Also, a well-maintained tool is positioned a safe space from other power tools.
  • Use signage to educate users about the tools. The image to the right shows some of the informative signage at my local space.

Get Properly Insured

This is a necessity — it’s what separates a space that can survive a serious accident and a space that folds. My colleague [Kristina Panos] wrote a great piece describing what’s involved in hackerspaces getting insurance. It’s not cool, it’s not sexy, it’s simply necessary.

Accept That You Can Only Do So Much

Ultimately, just like in kindergarten, each member has to be in charge of his or her own behavior. All you can do is provide the right environment, trust that members will behave like adults, and hope for not too much Chaos.

64 thoughts on “Hackerspaces Are Hard: Safety

  1. I think a non-zero factor is, most hackerspaces are using older buildings because of cheap rent. A lot of floor space is needed for shop equipment, laser cutters, 3D printers, break room, etc. A new building or a great neighborhood is usually not available for low rent.
    These older buildings have inadequate [everything]

  2. Appointing people to certain tasks comes with the caveat that there is often (from the spaces I have experienced) no consistency from executive members bcz it is as much their past time as it is other lower members – which makes reliable maintenance of safety protocols difficult. Live feeds of the space aides in at least monitoring (shd amusingly install a red alert sign you can trigger via website with feed) but the reasonable means is only permitting use of equipment after evidence of following procedures. I must grumble against some spaces that charge large fees for classes so that you may be “certified” to use certain pieces of equipment.

  3. I used to have a pretty blasé approach to basic safety rules.
    Then I tried making rocket candy alone in my kitchen.
    My hand is still recovering from widespread 2nd degree burns, I’m just glad it wasn’t my face.

    I guess idiots and toddlers have to touch the stove once before they learn.

    1. A friend has a rule: No working on class III lasers or above after 11:00 pm. He also has a small blind spot. He says he saw a smoke-ring cloud inside his eye when it hit him. I’ve adopted his rule even without the blind spot.

      Another friend doesn’t use the auto body shop after smoking up anymore. He lived, but they were unable to re-attach his three fingers, even though they packed them on ice for the ambulance trip. I’ll use planes and hand saws after a beer, but that’s where I draw the line. No chisels, no power saws. I type for a living.

      1. Well.. just to play devils advocate… If you are going to have an accident and loose your fingers doing it right after “smoking up” might at least take a little of the edge off of the experience. just sayin…

        Ok, done being evil now. Don’t try that at home kids.

  4. Get comfortable safety gear. Nobody is going to wear a respirator that doesn’t seal, and if their glasses fall off of their face nobody is going to put them back on.

    Dirty and scratched up safety glasses are often more dangerous than no eye protection. One way you risk eye injury, the other way you chop up your hands because you can’t see what you are doing.

  5. Hacker spaces in particular, and hackers in general are not interested in industrial or product safety until something bad happens. For example, approximately 9 (or more) years past, submitted proposal and outline to hackaday for designing a safe product per the common stuff (60950/61010/60335), and then submitted another proposal about 8 or 9 years past on minimizing EMC issues. Crickets. But several hackaday writers got smart and have started talking about it for last 2 (or more) years, so kudos. But be careful with this subject, as it is an unholy amalgamation of code, statute, physics, chemistry, and conjecture. Being legal per building code and having a NRTL logo on your equipment and having formal process requirements does not always make a safe operation.

    WRT to above comment, with the exception of some mains distribution and gas lines, have found it easy to correct hazards in old buildings where the structure is sound.

    As for “safety experts”, there is no such animal.Have been doing compliance and design engineering for over 30 years, and have yet to meet a general safety ‘expert’. Appoint a safety officer that heads the safety committee (many eyes are better) with the hope that at least one of that group will know whom to ask and where to look for the answers. Extreme safety hazards are oft not in plain sight; the observer needs a keen sense of applied physics, building code, and scoped standards.

    1. This, and this cubed when it comes to bio/gene-hacker spaces. The lack of biohazard controls is sometimes beyond cringeworthy. A laser cutter going up sucks – broad-scale biological contamination can be much worse.

    2. We had a safety zealot at my old hackerspace. In retrospect, of course, he was right on most counts.

      Two things I learned from him: OSHA is a tremendous source of information about how to do this stuff right, and the heavy stuff goes in the middle of the shelf where it’s easiest to lift — not at the bottom, not at the top.

      1. Unless the presumed ‘zealot’ was a socially inept dickhead, the fact that you are referring to this individual as a “safety zealot” indicates you learned very little, if anything, from this person.

        You are welcome to spend a day in my employer’s safety lab to learn what most OSHA auditors do not know about power conversion equipment.

    3. We all think we are invincible. We all think something bad might happen but it’s going to happen to some other idiot.

      Perhaps the better sell isn’t “you need to do this for your own safety” It’s, we need to mandate that everyone does this because otherwise, when someone gets hurt we might get shut down. And… there goes your nice fun shop full of all your favorite toys.

  6. >>Not everything can have a lock on it.
    Sure it can!
    A handful of SCRs or other relays are gonna be cheaper than your insurance premium. Running a couple breakers to the machine shop is gonna be expensive but again, cheaper than catastrophe. Figure out a grading system (how quickly they kill you isn’t a bad one) for your equipment and put them on a few different breakers unlocked by different access codes/fobs. Most people will obey the rule without the physical barrier but at 2am with only ‘a couple more steps’ to do on a tight deadline everyone will be tempted to use a tool they have no experience with.

    Often times the insurer is the one that makes you put safety devices in, not the board of directors.
    Safety (certification) classes should be free, but I understand it’s time consuming to run them. Depending on local law they can also open you up to more liability than they remove, sadly.

    Other first aid stuff is available. You can get sterile saline squirt bottles (portable eye wash stations) for pretty cheap. 2″ gauze and medical tape can be ordered online and are very useful for almost all situations, a couple boxes of plasters/bandages are also pretty cheap. Just make sure you check your stock regularly and make sure it’s well marked. Having a map to the nearest / ER printed out with your kit isn’t a bad idea either, it’s required in some workplaces.

    At the same time, rather than stapling pillows over every sharp corner, just make sure people are aware of the danger they put themselves in. At some point it’s your fault you got your arm lopped off in a hydraulic press after you used a knee and your toes to hold the safety stops so you could move a piece while the cylinder was moving.

  7. NEVER work alone. A few years ago I was terribly injured in a shop accident even though I was wearing recommended safety gear. Some quick action to save me by another person in the shop meant I spent 2 weeks in the hospital instead of forever in the grave.

      1. Not necessarily. The graveyard could be dug up during construction or he could be washed away into a body of water. Depending how you die, there may not even be anything left to put in a grave.

  8. My favourite unsafety moment was at the HAR hackercamp.
    Last night of the camp in a big tent somewhere in the netherlands.

    One of our hackerspace-homies brought a canister full of selfmade thermite and was playing with it during the whole camp.
    Thermite is pretty cool. Once it burns you can not make it stop.
    Not with water, not with sand.

    So that last night .. after 4 days of party and camping and hacking and you know.. hackercamping..
    This guy manages to set a hand full of thermite on fire and burn a hole in a desk.

    I was in my tent already and heard screams.
    I JUMPED out of my tent in my undies , grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran into the big tent where the screams came from.
    That tent was full of white smoke and the guy was sitting there.. at the desk.. laughing kinda madly.

    The hole had glowing/burning red borders, it looked like straight out of some alien movie.

    Nobody got hurt but we emptied _2_ fire extinguishers on the mess before we realized it was pointless.

    My conclusion: Thermite is a terrible party toy.

    1. Thermite provides it’s own fuel and oxygen while producing more than enough heat. Of course it’s hard to stop! I suspect it would burn in space if you can manage to get it started. Hmmm.. now I am curious. Does anyone know if that would work?

  9. Oh yeah there was another one…
    At the last CCCamp in 2015 some dude left a bottle of fermented Kombucha on a table of our workshop area.
    The guy made the kombucha the day before and did not know that you CAN NOT EVER close and seal a bottle that has something fermenting inside.
    The bottle exploded with a loud KAWOOM sound right in the faces of two participants of my SMD solder workshop i held there.
    One had glass parts sticking in his skin only one centimeter under his eye and had to go to the hospital.
    A sharp glasspiece of ~20cm length went straight trough the roof of the tent.
    It was a heavy tent.

    So i guess the lesson is:
    When you do interesting stuff, things will eventually explode and wearing safety glasses all the time is not an option.
    Also safety glasses wont save you from glass-spears at high velocities.

    1. They sent even a firefighter truck, because on the phone somebody misheard “glass bottle exploded” with “gas bottle” – luckily this did not happen.
      I would not really call this tent really “heavy”. It was one of this typical party pavilion tents made out of white polyethylene foil. But I sure do not want to be in the path of such a glass shard. It was scary coming back to my tent and seeing ~3 emergenccy vehicles (fire, ambulance) at our place.

      1. AH YES!
        I totally forgot about the firetruck!
        And the tent was really just a party pavilion, not one of those super heavy circus tents.
        Still.. that shrapnel would have killed a guy.

  10. Here are two simple things you can do right now for your hackerspace:

    1. Locate the first aid / trauma kit.
    2. Take it down from the shelf or cupboard where it probably is, and put it near the floor.

    This is so it can be reached by people who maybe are unable to stand or reach.

    1. Makes sense but.. should you really be moving that?

      I’m looking for step 3 where you inform EVERYONE of it’s new location and step 4. where all space documents and new member training procedures are updated to reflect the change.

      I for one am not going to be thanking you as I run around the space futilely attempting to hold a bleeding wound shut because I can’t find the first aid kit.

      Also, “near the floor” of most spaces I have seen is a rather dirty place. It’s not exactly where I would choose to store things that I intend to place on/in an open wound. I guess so long as it’s in a really good sealed box it’s ok. Perhaps ensuring that is in a sealable container is step 0.

      Then there is step -1, running this by the board or whoever is in charge. I know good hackerspaces can be pretty loosly run but if anything deserves a little bit of stable leadership and due process I would think first-aid policy qualifies.

  11. >a leaking propane tank exploded

    No, it didn’t. Propane tanks ’bout never explode, bleve me.

    “Wentler said Meyer was moving a steel beam column when it fell onto a propane tank used to run a forklift. Propane gas was released and a spark from the forklift caused a propane flash explosion, she said. The Madison Fire Department has not released a report yet on its investigation.

    The accident happened five minutes after Wentler left the Corry Street building. A neighbor across the street heard the steel beam fall, helped Meyer get out of the building and called 911, Wentler said.”

    A safety culture is important: if you see something unsafe, say something about it, immediately. The peer pushback is likely to be significant, so unless the safety culture comes down from the top, there is a nullifying force that you’ll have to deal with. Witness the stereotypical discussions in these forums when someone raises a safety concern.

  12. In our space we joke a bout safety third. But we really do try very hard to follow safety protocols. I have the dubious honor of being called sparky from time to time because i am pretty brave with electricity. Also fire! But I make sure that there is plenty of ppe and buy stuff that I find from time to time. Like Niosh suits and ear protection that I have run across in bulk at thrift stores. We have full leathers for welding as well. I have even bought Lab coats for when we are working in the chemistry area.

    Which unfortunately is just a closet now. Had to do some downsizing.

    But we make sure that all members have safety orientation before using certain equipment as well. And i try to have periodic tests on basic stuff to keep people up to date, although this is sometimes harder than I would like. All in all, it is a chore to keep on track and we only have 4 members.

  13. “There are old technicians and bold technicians, but no old-bold technicians.”
    In my experience, the worst are often the experienced people. They get too comfortable with things a newbee can plainly see you aught have a healthy respect for.

    1. I got caught but good. My own fault. 3 phase power panel with base type NE-2 indicator lamps for each phase, screw in lamp covers. One flickering, sure sign it had to be replaced or go dark next day or two, typical for one to need replacement every couple months, screw in bezel holds it in. Pulled bulb, fumbled and dropped the new replacement on the tile floor, picked it up and put it in socket. Moment I put the screw in bezel up and started it a foot long blinding flame shot out making horrible buzz sound. Pretty nasty burns right hand. Vaporized the cables inside conduit. When dropped the the bulb elements had bent and touched, (we figger). Who woulda guessed? Purely my own fault, but who woulda thought? Lucky was standing to side of panel instead of square in front of it.

      Same shop… Fuzz was his name… we had to 4X day measure and adjust a stack of 300V DC supplies, one supply at a time, to create + and – 1500v. We used a meter… Fuzz was good to 10v using two fingers instead of a meter. Same guy would grab the CRT HV wire in a video display then reach out and “touch someone”. He was an ancient dude there to “teach us”.

      Same shop… Never leave your boss alone for a day. He decided to defrost the shop fridge…. was taking too long… used a steak knife to chip away at the inch of frost. Poked wrong spot and got a blast of freon and ice crystals in the eyes. Ambulance.

      Same shop… later same year, awarded Safe Shop of the Year!

      Quite the baptism…. stayed paranoid safe since. Seems to still be just shy of careful enough, but working good so far!

      1. WTF? Flame and vaporized cables just due to a bad bulb? Shouldn’t there be some sort of fuse or circuit breaker that prevents that sort of thing? Were the little elements actually able to handle more current than the wire? It sounds to me like there may have been some bigger safety violations going on than just your dropping of a light bulb.

        As for the defrosting story. Yup! I did that to my own fridge in college. I didn’t get an eyeful of anything harmful but I did kill what had been my perfectly good refrigerator. :-(

          1. Plasma conducts, grows and melts conductors while working it’s way back towards the source, in this case inside 4″ tubing. Panel part of building wiring, not my simulator. Bulbs on mains BEFORE breaker to verify all 3 phases present before applying power to the simulator which filled 2/3 of 1500 sq ft room. Some months later such panels at all facilities were changed to replace NE2’s with meters for each phase.

            Bus bars on outside of bldg melted and stopped it, took about 2 seconds.

  14. Using safe tools.
    I would ban people from even carrying one in at all. They are designed for primitive camping and butchering animals. This is a shop. They’re the duct tape and hot snot of tools! After three cutting events years ago I gave them up. I use X-acto, wood chisels, and various kitchen knives with short enough ground down blades to fit the work. If your hand or fingertips have to touch the blade, it’s too long. That is what handles are for.

    A pancake turner, the nice thin stainless steel kind should be the tool of choice to get a print off, maybe with the end sharpened on the top side only. Make or modify a tool for the task and label it so others can benefit. The are occasionally tasks for which no proper tool exists. That doesn’t mean reach into your pocket for…

    1. My pocketknifel sees lots of use. This policy would hurt. Would be happy to take your “training course” to get signed off and continue to use it. I mean, it or one of several generations of it’s grandpappy been with me and providing fine and safe service ever since.

      To be fair, my pocketknife did get me good once when was 15 or 16. Dull, slipped, shoulda had stitches. But that’s why I’m safe with it now.

      How did you learn that a fire extinguisher is needed in the shop? Whoa! You say you had a fire? Well, if you say an accident proves it’s not safe then how come there’s still a welder in the shop… and fire extinguisher? By same rational of banning a tool that has proven to be involved in an accident, such as a pocketknife, should not welding be banned? I’ve had a wrench slip and earned and abrasion. Wrenches now banned?

      Appropriate preventative measures, appropriate training, appropriate safety equipment, appropriate oversight, and yes you may have to ban someone that still just doesn’t “get it”. But management has to “get it” first!

      Get with the program! Safety training is needed so can be allowed to use tools. If not allowed to use tools then it’s not a hackerspace.

  15. I started wearing safety glasses when I do pretty much anything with my hands, including soldering. Eyes are too delicate and too important, and safety glasses are comfortable and make you look like a boss. No excuses!

  16. Does anyone know which 3M Filter are the right one if you laser cut acrylic and mdf?
    Lately I have some breathing difficulty if I stay in the room with our Laser for to long (like 1 1/2h+)

      1. We have a dual filter system in place, a rougher Wool stuff to get rid of the debris and a fine active charcoal one.
        One of the other guys made one of these nice Airquality sensors and they go to eleven if you cut MDF U_u
        We can’t extract the fumes to the Outside because we have some delicate neighbours so thats no option.
        I know a PPE is not a good idea, but since im Cutting for 2-3 Hours just one day a week its the easy option :P

        I went through the 3M catalog but couldn’t figure out which is the Right filter :(

    1. Given that the number of soldering equipment related eye injuries in that database is equal to the number of eye injuries from tape recorders in 2010 we should just wear glasses all the time then. Over 50% of the descriptions aren’t even from soldering electronics. They are welding or doing plumbing work with a torch, a little bit different situation.

  17. Gaffer tape is the solution!
    I’m going to gaffer tape myself to my bed!
    Please, please don’t find any accidents of any description involving gaffer tape and beds?

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