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Safety in the Shop: My Story

Safety is a very serious topic if working in a small shop like ours or in your own garage at home. Just being in a shop around power tools or someone that is using them can cause you serious harm. There are many reasons for injury in the workplace. It is said, the most dangerous guy in the shop is the guy that thinks he knows everything and doesn’t think he needs to follow safety rules. This person thinks IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN TO ME, I HAVE BEEN DOING IT THIS WAY FOR YEARS, I KNOW WHAT I AM DOING, IT WILL ONLY TAKE A SECOND. His best excuse is I DIDN’T KNOW.

I think the most dangerous person in a shop is the guy that isn’t paying attention. It may be the person operating the equipment, or it may be a bystander that walks into your grinder sparks or bumps the jack while you are working under a vehicle without a jack stand. (No one would ever do that.)

In this article you will see what happens when you are riding on the edge and make the smallest of mistakes. In the end, I hope you will remember this story and retain some of these images as you are working around power tools. Cut out the pictures and put them near your grinder or go to to download and print this story. The reason I am sharing this story with you is not to gross you out or get sympathy but to get you to think about safety. I want to spare you the pain and the cost that I experienced.

My story starts out just like any other good shop story. We were working on our Baja race Bronco. We were busy building some new bolt-in upper mounts for the new coil over shocks we were installing; having a good design we started building a prototype. We used a tube bender to make the main structure of the mount, then tack welded the mounting brackets to the shock mount tubes so we could bolt the parts together. Everything went together as planned.  We welded all of the brackets in place and then built a stronger copy of the prototype. However, when we went to bolt in the new part the holes were a little off. We looked it over and decided we could just grind off one of the brackets, move it over ¼”, and then it would fit properly. After we got the bracket off with a die-grinder, I was off to the bench grinder to grind off the rest of the weld. I have used this grinder for about 18 years (since I was a kid) with a wire wheel on one side. I have used this thing for every kind of job you could imagine from stripping all of the paint off of door panels and valve covers to polishing chrome; hell, I can even make rubber look new with it. I have never had an accident or close call. We have a big 4hp bench grinder with two 1.5″ X 10″ grinding stones. If you ground a piece of 2″x 2″ solid the grinder would not even slow down. It is a very powerful tool. I got all of the old weld off of the tab. I was thinking, “all we had to do was weld this last little bracket on, then we would be done for the day”. I wanted to get home and do some stuff I needed to get done. Just then I saw an edge that I wanted to put a 45-degree bevel on. I thought it would make it easier to weld. Then it happened! In 0.00001th of a second it was gone.
Just as I finished grinding the bracket, it got sucked into the grinder along with my left index finger. My finger was between the steel, the grinding stone, and the stone guard. I pulled my finger out as fast as I could. Unfortunately it was too late, with a grinder as powerful as this one is, it ground my finger to the bone. The bone at the tip of my finger was ground to a 45-degree angle. Luckily it missed the first knuckle joint and tendon. It also removed all of the fingernail, nail bed, cuticle and skin.I kicked the stop button on the grinder with my foot to stop the noise and sparks from the stuck bracket. Just then my dad came running over. I told him to call my wife so she could get my medical card and take me to the emergency room. Dad went for the first aid kit and the phone. While my dad was on the phone, I looked around the grinder to see if the skin just tore off and I could pick up part of my finger but I couldn’t even see blood. It was just gone, all of it.

Because of the first aid training I received while in the Army, I knew not to panic, to keep pressure on my injury, and to keep my hand elevated. This is the exciting part; as soon as I pulled my finger out of the grinder, I wrapped my right hand index finger around the first joint of my injured finger, squeezed it, and kept my finger raised over my head. My finger didn’t even bleed until after I got to the emergency room and had to let it go so they could take x-rays.

Now that my wife was on the way, we went into the packing/shipping room to cover my finger. I kept squeezing it. Chuck put a bandage on it. He really didn’t want to put the gauze on the wound because it would stick to the open wound but we didn’t want anything to get in it, so he taped it off. Gretchen showed up within 5 minutes of the accident. I kept my finger over my head all the way to the emergency room and while sitting in the waiting room. When they took off the bandage to do X-rays on my finger, it bled a little but not as much as I thought it would. The blood had clotted by then.

After the X-ray, they had to clean out what was left of the top of my finger. I am so glad they numbed it! They did what they call a block, which means that they injected Novocain into the main nerve on my finger to numb my whole finger. After the nerve block took effect, they had to blast the grinder stone and metal chunks out of my finger. They took an 8″ long by 2″ round syringe with a cone on the end, full of COLD water and blasted it into my open wound not once, not twice, but three times. Even with the block, I could still feel them working on my finger. Once they cleaned my finger out they had to make sure the flesh was not separated from the bone. The Doctor held what was left of the tip my finger down on the counter and told me to try to flex my finger upward. That really didn’t feel good; at least it was attached so they didn’t have to do a deep clean. They really couldn’t do anything for my finger because there was nothing left to do but clean and cover it they made an appointment for the next day with a surgeon and gave me a morphine shot so it was all good after that.

The next day Gretchen drove me to the appointment. Once I got in to see the doctor he took one look at my finger and said “Wow you did a number on that, there is nothing I can do for you. I will have to refer you to a good hand surgeon in San Antonio tomorrow”. Wow that took all of 5 minutes, which my bill later revealed to be $100 visit not to mention two of us missed a half-day of work.

Three days after I ground my finger we got to the appointment in San Antonio and met Dr. Alex Roland who looked at my finger for a long time without saying anything. He was trying to determine if there was any nail bed left. It was hard to distinguish because it wasn’t cut or smashed it was ground off so it all looked the same. Then finely he asked how I did it and, that there wasn’t any thing left to stitch up but he thought he could work with it. He also said that “we really need to watch for a bone infection and if that happened we could be looking at gangrene”. He would give me some strong antibiotics and the nurse would come in and cover up my finger while he went to confer with another Doctor and he would be back in a few minutes.

When Dr. Roland came back he said he would schedule an appointment for surgery on Thursday at 6pm with a check in by 3pm. We needed to get it done ASAP. “What we are going to do is a skin graft. We will remove some skin from the inner side of your elbow then sew it to your finger and that they would also sew a prosthetic nail on to keep stuff out of it while it healed and The skin should fill in between the new skin graft and the bone. You will never have a fingernail but we’ll have to wait and see after you start to heal if part of the nail will grow back, if it does we will have to go back in and cut it out.
My wife and I got to the hospital at 3pm and waited until 5pm when we were called back to prep for surgery. I got into one of those stupid gowns that put a chill up your back and got onto the hospital bed. They took a medical history and stuck a big Q-tip up my nose to do some test to see what kind of Antibiotics would be the most effective. After about 30 minutes they came in and gave me the Anesthesia. Just as they came in to take me into the surgery room I was going under and would remember very little for the next few days.
The next thing I remember vaguely was getting into the car at what I was told later was 10:30 PM. The hour-long car ride took a second. I got home and slept for the next day or two except when the pain woke me up and I took another Vicodin.

About a week later I went back for a follow up appointment and Dr Roland said it looked good.

We would have to watch it closely to make sure the graft took and make sure it didn’t get infected. After many months of healing the skin graph is growing just fine. Unfortunately about 5 months later two small pieces of the fingernail have started growing back through the graft and I will have to have another surgery to have them cut back out. Dr. Roland did a great job during and after the surgery on my finger.
During one of my Dr. visits we were talking about what I did for BC Broncos and he was thinking about getting a Jeep or Scout something classic and with 4 wheel drive needless to say he is now a proud owner of a really nice stock uncut 1974 bronco with only 26,000 original miles on it.

So far this little accident cost me $5,800 and my insurance $14,200 (not including the follow up surgery) plus the 10-120 mile trips to the hospital, the 14 days of missed work not to mention that I am missing part of my finger. It only takes a second. With that kind of money I could have built a deck for my house, a flat screen TV and a GPS/DVD system for my truck for less.

So now that I have your attention. I would like to give you a few grinder safety tips.

How can you avoid getting hurt around the grinder;

  1. Know your equipment. Don’t be afraid to tell people the safe way to use it.
  2. Use your safety equipment like a face shield and ear mufflers.
  3. Never use gloves or loose clothing when using a grinder. They could be sucked into the wheel.
  4. Never stand in front of the grinder when first turning it on. After it is up to speed start grinding.
  5. Read the manual and keep it near so if others use the tool they can read it too.
  6. Maintain the tool keep it in good working order.
  7. If you have to remove a guard, put it back on when you are done.
  8. Know the specs and tolerances. Did you know the distance between the guards and grinding stone should be less than the thickness of a key? I didn’t and that info could have saved me a lot of pain and money.

BC Broncos now carries grinder safety gauges and warning stickers to hopefully remind you of some of the precautions you should be observing when using this type of dangerous equipment.

Grinder safety reminder sticker        Grinder safety measuring tool

Good luck and be SAFE.

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