Who was that masked man?

For those who regularly follow Tom’s Workbench, you may have noticed that there was no link of the week posted this past Friday.  An oversight?  Something more sinister?

Surgical masks in Mexico CityUhh, no.  I was, however, tasked to go and assist our local health department with the public education effort in response to the 2009 Swine Flu outbreak.  Yup, when there’s a crisis, I typically get called in.  It makes my job a little more interesting.

One of the questions I heard time and again from the callers and the media concerned the use and effectiveness of surgical masks to halt the spread of the virus.  After all, aren’t folks all across Mexico City wearing them at the orders of the health ministry?

Well, while working at our local health office, I discovered that those masks are exceptionally effective at preventing your germs from contaminating others, and not so good at keeping you from getting infected in the first place.

If you want to see a good use of a filtering mask to prevent the intake of potentially dangerous particles, you need look no further than your workshop.

Saw dust is one of those shop dangers that falls to the bottom of the list when you think of the other things that can happen in your shop.  The prospect of amputating fingers on a table saw is far more concerning than the pretty colors of saw dust collecting at your feet. But, the ubiquitous byproduct of cutting, routing and sanding can cause big issues all by itself.

First up, saw dust is a known carcinogen.  Yup, after years of exposure, constant inhalation of these fine particles can lead to nasal cancer and the development of polyps in the sinuses.  Cutting manufactured wood panels (MDF, Plywood, hardboard, etc) also adds the chemicals from the binding glues to the air as well – and I doubt many of those products are touted for their health-enhancing benefits.  Many exotic woods – and some domestics – carry in them different oils and other chemical compounds that can lead to severe allergies in some woodworkers, and inhaling them only brings them more deeply into your sinuses and lungs where your body’s reaction can be extreme.

Besides, the dust itself can be an irritant and aggravate other allergies as well.  Believe me, after a long woodworking session this spring (which was on top of the oak pollen in the atmosphere – another allergen I am sensitive to), I had to spend about a week out of the shop with severe sinus headaches.

Cutting the dust should be a priority in your shop.  Dust collectors and dust filters are the best first line of defense against the raging cloud.  Besides pulling these harmful particles out of the air, they help keep your workspace clean and tidy and help prevent slips.  A cleaner and safer workplace…  nice.

For those who work on outbuildings with large doors and windows or garages, providing adequate ventilation will help greatly.  Of course, at my garage workshop, the cars in my driveway may end up with a fine powdery coating on them, but such is the price of safety.  This, with very few exceptions, would probably be an issue with a basement workshop…

Dust Mask Line UpFinally, while you may be working with the right equipment, it still won’t hurt to use a dust mask or respirator when doing very dusty jobs – sanding comes to mind.  Even with highly-efficient dust collecting sanders, enough of the fine stuff is produced and can affect your health after prolonged sanding sessions.  It’s always a good idea to put on a dust mask and just be sure you are covered.

What kinds to use?  Well, for really dusty environments, there are dust respirators and even powered dust respirators, which filter and supply fresh air to the user.  These are really sweet, but can be quite expensive.  Of course, we are talking about your health here…

Another option are paper or woven masks. These are inexpensive and can do a decent job keeping the dust out. Before you commit to buying the uber-large package at your local mega-mart, buy a small package first to ensure they fit you well. For example, if you have a beard, these masks may not fit as well as you would like them to, so a respirator might be a better route.

Do I mean to cause a panic?  Of course not.  But, as some wise guy said many years ago, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…”  Or, keeping an ounce of sawdust out of your nose…

I dunno…

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