Are School Shops Safe For Students?

Over the years Jeremy and I have had the pleasure of working with over 3,000 schools and have been onsite to training at close to 400. This has given us the opportunity to see, firsthand, the challenges teachers face with regards to insuring student safety.

Math Doesn’t Lie!

  • It is estimated that, every year, over 5 million people are injured in woodshop and metal shop accidents alone.
  • The average class size in the United States is 24 students per classroom. In Canada it is even higher at over 26.
  • The National Building Code of Canada requires almost 10 square meters of space per student to safely work in a shop or vocational setting. Many schools, especially those that are older would not comply with that requirement.
    It should be noted that the 5+ million injuries are not just school related but reflect the industries as a whole. Two things are concerning to me here:
  1. This reflects injuries that, in the majority of cases, occur with trained professionals. It would be safe to assume that the ratio would be considerably higher in a school where the students are just learning safe use of the tools.
  2. When I was doing the research for this article I was surprised and disturbed to find almost no statistical data on school shop injuries
    Types of Injuries
    Injuries in shops can vary in seriousness and can include:
  • Lacerations
  • Eye Injuries
  • Burns
  • Broken bones
  • Concussions
  • Amputation

While rare, death has ocurred.

Access to Dangerous Tools

While there is a lack of statistical data to understand the cause of injuries in vocational training facilities, I spoke with many educators about this problem. While there were a variety of reasons expressed the most common is trying to insure that the student is properly trained to use that particular tool. Adding fuel to the fire, so to speak, is the fact that in most schools I have visited, the teacher is solely responsible for creating protocols to avoid students from using equipment on which they are not qualified. We have seen everything from permission papers that require the student to sign before using particularly dangerous tools to colour coded glasses identifying their status with regards to power tools. Of course the number of students in the shop makes it increasingly difficult to monitor all of this. The teacher’s head seems to need to be on a pivot at all times to monitor this activity.

Yeah, It’s Personal!

I am the grandfather of 12, with ages ranging from 17 to 4. I think about their safety. As a society we have gone to great lengths to protect our youth. Stringent seat belt laws, some jurisdictions banning smoking in our own cars with kids on board, building small fortresses around our backyard pools. I am all for these precautions and yet I feel we have not addressed other dangers with the same veracity.

I think if one of my grandkids deciding to learn a trade like automotive repair or welding or woodworking. I would want to know that we are doing everything in our power to make the environment as safe a possible.

A Good Start!

In the early 2000’s Steve Gass introduced SawStop to the woodworking industry. This revolutionary technology has saved countless fingers and hands in education and industry. Their patented “flesh sensing” technology stops the blade in a millisecond upon detection of the human body part thereby reducing a possible amputation to nothing more than a scratch. It took very little time before SawStops were replacing existing tablesaws that had no such safety feature.

I started working in the woodworking industry not long after (2005) and one of our core markets was (and still is) education. I have heard from many inside education argue that adding a SawStop would create a false sense of security for a student learning to use the tool. To me that would be akin to sending your kids to run through traffic in the freeway so the would “respect” the cars and the harm they can inflict. I am pretty sure if I did that with my grandkids their parents might have a little something to say about it.

Student safety should be at the forefront of every decision we make in education. No student should learn “the hard way” about the dangers of many of the tools we see in technology and trades in schools.

Since the introduction of SawStop we have not seen a disruptive technology of anywhere near this magnitude to reduce potential injury on other equipment.

The Answer?

I think there are many layers to this question. I could literally dedicate an entire blog to this subject alone. I want to focus on two.

Reduce Class Size

In 2017 CNC News produced an article featuring Ross Phinney, a tech teacher in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. Ross spoke at length about the overcrowding of his shop. Over 16 years of teaching he saw the number of students in the class rise form 10-14 to as many as 22. The square meter per student workspace in their machine shop, as an example, was slightly more than half the National Building Code of Canada recommendation. Ross expressed deep concern about the safety of his students in that environment.

Not only is it a physical danger for students but the stress on the teacher should be considered. I have been in many of these shops over the last 15 years and I am astounded that teachers can manage the work flow of that many bodies in a room while being surrounded by dangerous tools that could create significant injury or worse.

Here is a link to that article: class-1.4257599

As administrators, teachers, parents and, yes, even grandparents, this should be a concern for us. It is on all of us as a collective, to insure that students have the safest work environment possible.

Tool Access Control

Just as Steve Gass and the SawStop team revolutionized the tablesaw industry, there is now technology in place that can limit access to all tools to only those who are adequately trained and qualified to do so.

Much like Gass did 20 years ago, Joel Danowitz created a distruptive technology that can be used on virtually any tool that requires external power to run. Founded in 2018, Grit Automation introduced an Access Control System using RFID technology that restricts student access. Teachers are granted administrative control of which students can use the tool based on his or her confidence that that students ability . safely operate it.

Joel’s passion for woodworking combined with his computer programming background made him uniquely qualified to develop this technology. That said what motivated him to develop it came as a result of two incidents.

The first came when Joel was still in school and a fellow student had a catastrophic table saw accident and lost most of the use of his arm. The second was even closer to home when Joel’s then 6 year old son turned on a jointer in his own woodshop while his back was to the boy. With blades at eye level for a 6 year old the results could have been equally tragic. We probably all know of someone who is missing a finger or worse due to a preventable industrial accident.

This short video, shot at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign campus explains why they chose to implement the Grit system throughout labs across the entire campus. While safety was at the top of the list of reasons, Grit Automation offers many other features that prove invaluable to educational facilities.


We don’t drive cars without seatbelts!

Virtually no educational facilities would consider a tablesaw that does not offer the safety features of a SawStop!

When a technology is available that could prevent injury it is incumbent on us, as a society, to embrace this technology. This could not be more true than in the schools of our great nations. We could talk about the liability issue (maybe in a future blog) but, in the end, the safety of our students, children and grandchildren compels us to implement protocols to minimize the risk of students learning trades.

References: class-1.4257599 performance-in-canada.pdf