Power Tool Safety in Science Labs

The use of power tools, such as table saws, drill presses, and miter saws, is becoming more common in science and STEM laboratories. All power tools have special mechanical and non-mechanical safety hazards that can result in injuries, including abrasions, burns, and fractures. This blog post describes machine-guarding safety protocols that schools need to develop to minimize such safety hazards.

Why machine guards matter

Machine guards are fixed, interlocked, or adjustable physical barriers critical to protecting their operators and those working in the surrounding area from hazards. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), machine guarding prevents such safety hazards as rotating parts, flying chips, and sparks.

Types of hazards

Machine operators should be mindful of the following hazards before using a machine or power tool.

Operation points are locations where the machine bends, bores, cuts, or shapes the stock being fed through the machine.

Hazardous movements are machine parts with rotating, reciprocating (up-down motions), and transverse motions (materials moving in a continuous line).

Pinch/shear points are parts of a machine where a body part or clothing could be caught between a moving machine part and a stationary object such as a belt, cam, connecting rods, or other source of energy transmission.

Non-mechanical hazards include chips, flying splinters, splashes, or sparks that are created while the machine is operating.

Safety rules for machine guards

The following list by North Carolina State University’s Department of Environmental Health Safety offers simple tips to follow when using machines and machine guards.

1. Be sure that moving mechanisms are clear of people and objects.

2. Be sure that workers are not wearing any jewelry or loose clothing that could get snagged in the machine.

3. Keep an eye on overheard moving parts, like pulleys, for potential hazards.

4. Check that guards are in place at all points where you could contact moving parts before turning the machine on.

5. Understand how to turn power on and off if you should have to do so quickly.

6. Read the manufacturer’s instructions on how to operate the machine safely and correctly.

7. Feed material into the machine with push sticks, not your hands.

8. Take it easy. Rushing through a job is one of the major causes of accidents.

9. Make sure maintenance is performed when required. If you think your equipment might have missed its scheduled maintenance let your supervisor know.

10. Use lockout/tagout procedures when a machine needs repair or maintenance. Turn the machine and the power to the machine off and tag it so that no one tries to use it. (This prevents the release of hazardous energy while employees perform servicing and maintenance.)

In addition, machine guards must be secure and tamper-proof so that no one can bypass or remove them. A guard that interferes with the operation in performing the job might be blocked or removed, but this is too dangerous to do. Guards need to be properly used to not only keep workers safe but to perform the job. Guards may need to oiled or greased occasionally to remain functional, but the guard should never be removed because doing so may cause the guard to not function properly or present a sharp hazard. Finally, a guard should never obstruct an operator’s view.


OSHA’s major goal for workers using power tools is to guard all machinery and equipment to eliminate a number of hazards. Always make sure safety guards are in place and that they are working properly, clean, and inspected before use.

Submit questions regarding safety in K–12 to Ken Roy at safesci@sbcglobal.net or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

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2 Responses to Power Tool Safety in Science Labs

  1. Tom Baldino says:

    I regularly advise my colleagues on how to use simple tools and machinery in their labs and how to protect their students from accidents. I teach Industrial Arts in a non-vocational comprehensive high school.
    I teach; Wood Shop, Metal Shop, Small Engine Repair and Drafting and Design classes, to say we are a pearl in a sea of oysters is a major understatement. With the closing of school shop programs over the 20 years the hands-on skills/tool sense kids were introduced to is gone, same goes for the faculty. I’m not trying to make carpenters, plumbers or machinists, I’m not a vocational teacher. I’m just trying to show students how to apply the academics they’re learning upstairs in as close to a real world environment as possible. My kids regularly make connections and finally understand geometry, measurement, and science principles they never really grasped before. It’s hard to break the old “shop rat’ student stereotype and it’s almost impossible for central administrators to think of the shops as technology. They immediately think of robotics or computer based classes when they say technology and for the most part don’t see the differentiated instruction we do unless it’s pointed out for them.
    I certainly hope the pendulum swings back to more schools having shop programs that allow students to apply and reinforce academic lessons while also providing a tangible product they can take pride in making, showing to family and use in their daily life for a long time.

  2. Dr. Ken says:

    Dr. Ken’s response to Tom Baldino’s comments:
    Tom – Thanks for your comments. This is one of the major reasons Dr. Tyler Love and I wrote our most current book titled “Safer Makerspaces, Fab Labs, and STEM Labs: A Collaborative Guide!” It is all about collaboration! Science and math teachers need to collaborate with Tech Ed & Engineering colleagues – especially for STEM activities. There is a free review of the book at https://sites.google.com/a/vt.edu/safetybook2017/ . It absolutely advocates and explains how to collaborate with colleagues. This is an absolute must for safer student activities. You have an expertise that science and math teachers do not and would welcome. Thanks again –
    Dr. Ken.

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