Machine Shop Safety 101: How to Work Smart & Safe

Marti Deans Marti Deans February 6, 2023

9 min read

Working in your first machine shop? Need a machine shop safety refresher? This guide has you covered.

Remember learning to drive a car for the first time? Absolutely everything was new and overwhelming. Now you barely even think about it. This is the same journey you’ll go through when working on your first CNC machine. There’s the whir of machines and chips flying; it’s all new and exciting — and hazardous if you aren’t prepared.

Here are some machine shop safety guidelines to start your career off on the right foot as a safe and smart CNC machinist. Of course, you should always follow your own shop’s protocols as well.

Why is machine safety important?

Machines are not smart, they’re dumb. That $250k DMG Mori might have the most advanced multi-axis system around, but at the end of the day, it relies on a human to operate it and stop it. That means you, and only you, are the first and last line of defense should anything go wrong. If your arm or hair gets caught in a spindle, that machine won’t suddenly stop. It’s going to keep doing what it does, machining away.

man watching CNC mill while wearing safety glasses
It just keeps going and going. Image courtesy of LeadersHub.

Why bring up such an obvious point? Because it’s really easy to go into autopilot mode on a machine shop floor. After a few years, you’ll likely have your groove down and know how everything works like the back of your hand. But the minute you let your guard down is the minute that something can go wrong.

In a car, you can get in an accident and walk out of the mess without a scratch. There’s that extra layer of protection between you and the roughness of the road. But on something like a motorcycle, or a high-performance milling machine, that buffer of protection is so much smaller. CNC machines might be safer with all of their enclosed parts, but you still need your awareness fully and completely in the present moment.

So how can you maintain your awareness? By working with a Safety First mentality. Now hold on; we’re not here to rattle off a list of shoulds and should nots. That’s for your company’s safety coordinator to do. If they require you to stick safety glass on every moving part of your machines, then know they have your best interests at heart. Instead of hard and fast rules, we’re going to focus on practical recommendations and questions that you can use as a guide.

male occupational health and safety officer inside factory doing inspection
Safety makes this man smile. Image courtesy of Profit Guide.

Know your environment

A high-performance CNC machine or engine lathe requires complete and uninterrupted attention. So is the immediate environment that your machine is located in. You’ll be working with new people, tools, and machines at all hours of the day. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you move through your work shift:

Where are your hands?

Know what your hands are doing at all times. It’s easy to slip into a thought and suddenly lose track of your physical process. Are you tightening a bolt? What happens if the wrench slips? Are you going to slam your arm into a pile of sharp chips, a tool, or even just the sharp corner of a workbench?

Where are your feet?

One of the most common accidents on a machine shop floor is slipping. Do you have a strong center of gravity as you lift that heavy load? Are your feet away from any moving parts that could catch them?

Where are your manners?

Everyone working on a machine shop floor is likely (hopefully) in a deep state of concentration as they machine their parts. We always recommend not interrupting a coworker when they’re working on a machine; even the slightest distraction can lead to a costly mistake. And before grabbing a coworker’s tool, ask if you can borrow it. If your request is declined, don’t take it personally, we all have different relationships with our tools.

Tool Rules - don't borrow it, don't move it, don't look at it.
Image courtesy of Wood Working Talk.

Know your gear

The gear you wear is your first and only line of defense if something goes wrong on the shop floor. Did some sharp steel chips just go flying across the room? Safety glasses will save your eyes. Or maybe you have some nasty coolant you need to handle that leaves some intense skin irritation. Latex gloves suddenly become your new best friend. This is the gear, or personal protection equipment, that we always recommend wearing, whether your boss requires it or not and whether it’s your 10th day or 10th year in the shop:

Eye protection

We always recommend rocking safety glasses that have side shields to keep any flying debris clear of your eyes. Remember, CNC machines slice through metal like butter, but those chips come off sharp. Even on manual machines, coolant and chips can fly, and the last place you want them is in your eyes. Safety glasses also come in handy if you work with hand-cutting tools that can suddenly break or shatter if used incorrectly.

safety glasses with side shields
Image courtesy of 3M.

Ear protection

Do your ears a favor and consider keeping a pair of ear muffs on as your machine runs full steam head. If the muffs are too bulky, then opt for earplugs. Or maybe double up and use both for extra protection.

Foot protection

ear muffs
Image courtesy of Amazon.

Sharp chips tend to end up on the floor, no matter how careful you are, so close-toed shoes are a must to keep your toes free of cuts and deeper lacerations. We always recommend sporting a pair of solid leather shoes. If you will be carrying around heavy objects, steel-toed shoes are even better, as they’ll protect your toes from being crushed in the case of an accidental drop.

Leather work boots
Image courtesy of Gemplers.

Lung protection

If you’re working on a grinder that doesn’t have a vacuum, then we absolutely recommend wearing a respirator to keep abrasive dust out of your lungs. Metals like zinc will reach temperatures above their boiling point when ground, which releases toxic fumes. Even operating some CNC machines like waterjets will create small metal particles that don’t belong in your lungs. Inhaling these can lead to serious health issues.

Image courtesy of 3M.

Hand protection

This is one of the trickiest pieces of equipment to recommend. Gloves and their usefulness is very much situation specific. For example, let’s say you grab a steel plate with some leather gloves on. In this situation, they did their job of keeping your hands safe from sharp edges. But what if you wore the same pair of leather gloves while running a machine, and they get caught on the spindle? Not good. On the other hand, latex gloves can keep your hands free of coolant with no risk of catching on the tool and sucking you in. Analyze each situation you find yourself in and ask, will these gloves do more harm or good?

Leather work gloves.
Leather work gloves are what many of us think of first, but they can often cause more harm than good. Consider latex gloves instead. Image courtesy of eBay.

Leave the bling behind

Yeah, you like to look good, but that Haas machine already looks sharp enough. Remember that every item on your body, from jewelry to your hair, needs to be kept away from any moving parts. Keep these recommendations in mind before heading off to work:

Image with labeled areas to pay attention to when dressing for the shop.

Don’t destroy your back

I know too many machinists that have met an early and pain-ridden retirement because they didn’t take care of their backs. Yes, it’s a pain to remember how to lift properly especially if you’ve been doing it differently your entire life. Find a way to make it a game, and get a buddy involved so you can watch each other’s backs until it becomes a habit. We recommend these lifting guidelines:

The 8 rules of lifting properly.

When working at your CNC machine, also try to be aware of the posture you hold throughout the day. Is your body aligned with your tools and workspace in a way that keeps your back feeling healthy and strong at the end of a work shift? Or are you walking out of the shop with a constant ache? Consider making some adjustments if needed.

Get familiar with your machine

We’ve covered all the basics for keeping you as a person safe. Now it’s time to focus on a few tips for working with your machine. The recommendations below will apply to any CNC machine you encounter:

Use a lockout/tagout system

A lockout/tagout system is the process of powering down a defunct machine and locking the power switch with a lock. This will keep others from trying to use a problematic machine. In a standard setup, only the service technician will have a key. Walking away from your machine without powering it down and securing it is inviting trouble.

Lock and tag from a lockout/tagout system
Image courtesy of Datron.

Watch closely for any inconsistencies

One of the most common causes of accidents is setting a tool or fixture offset incorrectly on a CNC machine. After starting your program, pay careful attention to how your spindle moves. This is especially important after doing a tool change.

You can run your program in single-block mode and view the “Distance to Go” to work through the code one line at a time to identify any issues before reaching cutting depth, making sure the tool length and part position are as expected.

Hitting the Emergency Stop on a Haas controller

Keep your workspace tidy

The workspace around your machine is just as important as the machine itself. At the end of a long day, you’ll likely have a nice pile of debris that someone can easily slip on. Instead of waiting until the end of your shift, we recommend tidying up your workspace as you go. That’ll keep your boss — and your safety coordinator — happy and keep you safe.

Clean and clear machine workspaces

Put these machine safety tips to work

And there you have it: our guide to machine shop safety 101. If this is your first job at a CNC machine shop, don’t be overwhelmed. It’s going to be exciting! Remember, it’s like learning how to drive a car for the first time. There will be a ton of new variables for your mind to juggle. New tools, new machines, new processes. Just take it slow and start those smart and safe habits right away. Remember, there’s never a “good” time to take your eyes off the road — or your CNC machine. It’s all hands on deck from here on out.

Is your shop using Fusion 360 to automate its CNC machines? Fusion 360 can help — try it for free today!

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