Technician’s Corner


Keep Your Lab Safe

By Steve Hill, BOCO, CO


“Technician’s Corner” is written exclusively for the O&P Almanac by members of the Orthotic and Prosthetic Technological Association (OPTA).


            Growing up, one of my mom’s favorite refrains was: “You’ll put your eye out with that!”

I was the only kid on my block who never got a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas.

            But she was right, of course. Proper eye safety—not to mention a wide variety of other safety concerns—is important. A safe workplace is a productive one. Besides, OSHA gets all bent out of shape if you have an injury every week or so.

            The subject of lab safety can fill a book, so let’s just hit the highlights. These are some of the ways you can make your lab safe and free of the proverbial “accident waiting to happen.”


Vision and hearing protection

            Clearly, the most obvious step is to wear eye protection anytime you use a power tool. Anything that rotates, cuts or blows air can deliver debris to one of your most precious possessions: your eyesight.

            Every time you cut plastic or metal on the band saw, every time you grind the inside of a socket and every time you blow metal shavings off of a drill press, you risk injury to your eyes if you fail to wear proper protection.

As a side note, when using compressed air to remove debris from a work surface, be mindful of the co-workers around you. They may not be wearing safety glasses and their eyesight is at risk as much as your own.

            Even an action that’s as simple as wiping down a plastic orthosis with harmful chemicals such as acetone or thinner can permanently damage the lens of your eye.

            It pays to wear some kind of eye protection for most work activities and to have an eyewash station that’s easily accessible for quickly washing out any chemicals or dust.

            The same goes for hearing protection. The requirements for such protection are based on these factors: how loud the sound is, how long you’re exposed to that sound and your proximity to it. If you have to yell at a person whose just a few feet away from you, you should probably be wearing some kind of hearing dampener.

            There are many types of protection, ranging from earplugs and canal caps to earmuff cups that completely surround the ear.

            Another type is known as a sound attenuator. It blocks sounds that are at a harmful decibel, yet allows you to hear sounds that are at an acceptable decibel. These are a little more expensive than the standard hearing protection, but the ability to hear your co-worker yell “Watch out! She’s gonna blow!” might just be worth the extra bucks.

            Your selection will vary depending on your activity and dampening requirement. For example, you might want to use smaller earplugs rather than bulky earmuffs if the sound isn’t too loud and you won’t be exposed for too long.

            OSHA’s permissible noise levels and times are listed in the box on page XX.




            If you’re exposed to more noise than what OSHA allows, you must wear hearing protection during times of exposure. If the time-weighted average is over 85dB, your lab must institute and abide by a hearing conservation plan. To learn more, visit OSHA’s Web site:


Hazardous chemicals

            Almost every well-planned lab I’ve ever seen has had one of those odd-looking metal cabinets, usually yellow in color, in which hazardous chemicals are stored.

            OSHA has specified the construction and placement of these cabinets to reduce the likelihood and severity of possible combustion.

            Storing these combustible chemicals next to a grinder on an open shelf is no longer deemed acceptable.

            Many of the chemicals we use every day—especially the ones used in prosthetics—have been identified as dangerous and should be handled with the utmost care.

            The dangers vary from chemical to chemical, and the information for each can be found on the appropriate material safety data sheet (MSDS). Your lab should create an MSDS book that can be accessed quickly and easily in case of accidental exposure.

            Dust is also under the heading of hazardous chemicals. In our industry, one of the worst dusts is from fiberglass resins.

            In fact, airborne particles are one of the worst environmental conditions that affect us the most in the workplace. Unseen and unfelt, volatile organic compounds lodge themselves in our lungs and cause havoc that is often not realized until many years later.

            For this reason, we ventilate not only the dust from grinding, but also the fumes from mixing resins. While a simple dust mask may be appropriate for most dust situations, be sure of the micron rating for your situation and choose appropriately. The same rules apply to the filter for your ventilation system.

            Another, less known dust hazard is one of combustibility. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), which are basically tiny combustible particles, can be ignited by as little as a static electric spark. Air filtration ductwork that isn’t properly cleaned of combustable material might one day become a highway by which fire is spread from room to room.

            Keep your HVAC ducts clean and free of fire-breathing dust dragons.


Power equipment

            Now here’s a big topic: power equipment. One could write a dozen chapters on the safe handling of the many saws, grinders and drills that we use every day. To keep it to a minimum, let’s just cover the surface.

            Anything that spins, such as drill presses, grinders and routers, can all grab hold of hair, jewelry and clothing. Long hair must be tied back, so that it’s out of the way of the machinery. Necklaces and bracelets should be removed, and loose clothing must be secured before operating any kind of power tool, even the hand-held kind.

            Trust me on this. I’ve seen firsthand how a drill press can yank the hair from a person’s head. It’s not a pretty sight.

            When using a drill press, it’s also a good idea to remove any rings from your fingers. If you slip and the drill bit winds up between your ring and your finger, the softest material loses. You won’t see too many machinists who wear rings and still have all of their fingers attached.


            Wearing gloves while grinding metal will save your hands not just from the heat created by friction, but also from the abrasive grit of the paper. Look at the hands of a veteran technician, and you’ll see where his life’s work is written. It doesn’t need to be this way, though.

            You can protect your hands and other useful body parts by wearing the proper protection. Gloves, hearing attenuators and safety glasses are the most important articles of clothing you can wear in the shop.


Be safe

            These are just a few examples of safety measures that can be easily and cheaply instituted in the lab.

            The rising cost of insurance and workers’ compensation make workplace safety a good investment for both the employer and the employee. It is money well spent.

Steve Hill, BOCO, CO, is with OTS Corp. in Weaverville, N.C. He is the secretary of OPTA.

            For more information about OPTA, call (866) 736-2637 or visit






OSHA’s Permissible Noise Levels

90 dB

8 hours

92 dB

6 hours

95 dB

4 hours

97 dB

3 hours

100 dB

2 hours

102 dB

1.5 hours

105 dB

1 hours

110 dB

30 minutes

115 dB

15 minutes