Hackerspaces are Hard: Safety


Safety is one of those topics that often elicits a less-than-serious response from some tool users. For these folks, they assume their elite skills will protect them and as long as they pay attention, they never will get hurt. This explains the prevalence of the nickname “Stubby” among this population. On the opposite end of the spectrum, safety is also one of those areas where people who don’t know a lot about tools can overreact. Imagine a whole table of kids wearing goggles as one of them gingerly melts some solder. You don’t want solder in your eye, but that’s just not going to happen under normal circumstances.

And then there are freak accidents, which are a reality. On September 20th, a leaking propane tank exploded at Sector67’s new workshop, severely injuring Chris Meyer. Far from a noob, Chris is one of the most experienced people in the shop and was a co-founder of the space. He has a long road of healing ahead of him, and as seems to be the sad necessity these days, he has a GoFundMe campaign to help both with his medical expenses and to help refurbish the workshop. The Foothills Community Workshop also burned to the ground recently, although fortunately no one was injured.

All in all, hackerspaces seem to be reasonably safe, particular considering the challenges they face — or more fairly, the risks associated with the typical hackerspace’s openness. Most hackerspaces allow anyone who pay dues to be a member. There is a wide range of backgrounds, competencies, and judgments represented with, how shall I put it, some unusual viewpoints that might hinder rule-following. And once the member has a fob or key, it’s open season on any kind of tool in the place right? Not everything can have a lock on it.

Here are a few simple rules that have emerged over the years, and may help your hackerspace navigate the twin dangers of complacency and paralyzed fear while preparing for the freak accidents that may simply come to pass.

Freak Accidents Happen

Safety isn’t a promise that nothing will go wrong. It’s a series of steps you take to ameliorate recognized hazards while trying to prepare for unpredictable accidents, in order to achieve an acceptable level of risk.

No one sets out to get injured. For every neophyte with a finger in a bag of ice, there’s a grizzled veteran with two fingers in a bag of ice. You can only pay attention and educate yourself, but you should always assume Chaos will enter into the picture.

Don’t Do Dangerous Things Alone

… because when Chaos does show up, you don’t want to be fumbling with your phone on the floor; you want to be yelling out to your buddy to call the ambulance. This rule is simple: don’t be the only person in the space when you use any tool that can severely injure you.

At the same time, you can be injured at any time. In 2011, I had to go to Urgent Care when I cut my finger open trying to scrape a print off of our CupCake’s build platform (foolishly) with a pocket knife.

You can see the final photo I took before I got hurt to the right. My buddy Ray Connors was a ‘Nam medic, and happened to be in the space, and bound up the wound so I could drive to the doctor’s office.

Ideally, your buddy will do more than just drag you to the doctor’s office. If you’re using a tool wrong, or are very tired, rushed, or otherwise cruising for a injury, that person should let you know.

It’s easy to take this too far. What, you can’t use a kitchen knife because no one else is home? I think the cutoff (sorry) might be any tool that could sever a limb or cut into your body past the skin, or cause you to be unable to help yourself. This rule is not about your knowledge and competence. It’s about Chaos, and minimizing the extent of damage in the worst case scenario.

Appoint a Safety Expert

Recruit someone to be the hackerspace’s safety expert, willing to read up on code and regulations, and to discover the best practices of other spaces. Finding someone to deep-dive into safety and regulations also helps the collective become aware of non-obvious safety issues like fumes, EM radiation, and noise. They also ensure that membership agreements and liability waivers are signed. Toronto’s Site3 CoLaboratory did a good presentation on buckling down on safety after an unfortunate wood shop accident: