An Armourer's Basic Safety Guidelines
by Eric Slyter
This is probably the most important and necessary component of your safety equipment. A good, solid set of safety glasses is an absolute necessity. I wear mine at all times when in the shop, without exception. They are not very expensive to obtain, so there's no excuse for not taking eye protection seriously. Secondarily, a face shield is a handy thing to have also as it doubles as both eye protection and as a way to keep flying particles (during grinding, etc.) from flying into your face... but it should be a supplementary piece of equipment, not a replacement for safety glasses.
The value of safety glasses should be obvious. Not only can they save you from injuries that could actually blind you permanently, they also save you from less drastic injuries that can save you a trip to the doctor or several minutes in the bathroom trying to wash out that painful speck of grit.
This is another crucial piece of equipment that should be readily available in your shop. I used to use foam ear plugs but found that taking them out and putting them back in when needed was a time consuming hassle, and given how dirty my hands usually are in the shop, not very sanitary. I switched to an inexpensive pair of "earmuff" type hearing protectors that work great. They also keep my ears warm, which is a bonus if you, like I, work in a shop that is subject to outside temperatures.
Hearing damage is cumulative. You will probably not notice damage to your hearing until it is too late, and most activities in the shop, unfortunately, are activities that will cause hearing damage. Cutting sheet metal (if using things like power tools) and said metal crashing on the floor as you cut it; hammering steel into shape; hammering rivets; grinding; these are all routine activities that will harm your hearing over time. Some armourers don't wear hearing protection during procedures such as planishing, citing that they need to hear the difference between a true strike and a missed one. It is true that you need to be able to hear the difference, but your ears can be trained to hear the difference through your hearing protection. I've been a musician for 15 years and noticed hearing damage early on, and as a result have worn ear plugs religiously when playing ever since... but this has not inhibited my ability to hear when someone is out of tune or singing off-key. Similarly, I can hear the difference in various armouring steps that require it.
Grinding, sanding, and polishing all create massive amounts of dust and particles, and if you do not wear a dust mask of some kind they will add up quickly, creating sinus and lung irritation. This is nothing to mess around with. Lung damage can be permanent, particularly since some of the particles created in armouring are carcinogens (cancer causing). When wearing a dust mask, a face shield can be used in place of safety glasses (which are uncomfortable and fog up with the mask). This configuration is also compatible with hearing protection.
Ventilation is equally important in this respect, as it gives the particles somewhere (other than your lungs) to go. In the case of things like arc or MIG welding, or using propane/MAPP torches, the gases produced won't be filtered by dust masks- ventilation is crucial in stopping the buildup of harmful gases. They are toxic and cumulative, and you don't want them building up in your system.
I wear leather gloves during most armouring operations to keep my hands from getting cut, scraped, and burned. Gloves are essential whenever handling sheet metal. Many refuse to wear gloves when dealing with things like grinders or other "spinning" motorized tools, as there is the possibility that one's glove can be caught by the machine and the hand and arm pulled forward to much trauma. This is a real possibility, but I've never been close to having that happen myself... however, by wearing gloves during grinding, sanding and polishing operations, and paying close attention to what I'm doing at all times, I've saved myself from countless painful burns and abrasions. Be sure to keep loose clothing and long hair out of the way, as they invite disaster when working with "spinning" machines. Use your best judgement, but err on the side of safety.
Another thing to consider is the strain that armouring puts on one's body. Hammering sheet metal and rivets, and doing other work-intensive shaping operations by hand, take their toll- particularly if one is new to the craft. Keeping your hands stretched and limber will make armouring more comfortable on the body and give you greater longevity. (see also: Tendonitis: Solutions from a Bodybuilder's Perspective)
An additional bonus of gloves is that, when handling your workpieces, they prevent the corrosive oils in your skin from coming in contact with the bare steel.
There are many heavy tools in an armourer's shop. Sheet metal itself can be extremely dangerous if dropped. For this reason, steel-toed work boots are strongly recommended.
Additionally, the floor of an armourer's shop can be a hazard due to unpleasant shards of sharp sheet metal and bits of nails, splinters of wood, etc. that can penetrate a shoe. For this reason, you should clean up your shop every day, sweeping up all these nasty bits so they can't pose a hazard to you (a cluttered floor also invites untimely trips and falls). Thick soled boots (preferably with steel-toes as noted above) will make your shop experience a safer one should one of these shards find its way under your foot. Check your boots before you go onto carpeted areas of your home, as these shards will tear carpet to pieces should you unknowingly walk in with one in your sole.
In the case of stick, wire feed, MIG welders and the like, radiation is produced in their usage. A proper welding helmet is crucial to protect your eyes from being burned by the radiation (a full welding helmet also keeps sparks and flying gobs of metal off of your face). Never weld without the proper protection for your eyes (I wear safety glasses under the welding helmet also for when I'm in-between welds). Wear appropriate gloves, long sleeves, and long pants also, as any exposed skin will be burnt by the radiation similar to a sunburn (except more concentrated and thus more severe).
I have long hair, and keep it braided when I'm in the shop. I also wear a bandana to keep it contained. If you have long hair, the last thing you want is for it to get caught in a "spinning" machine. That can be fatal, or at the least cause permanent injury. Unless you keep it contained, it will also fall in front of your face at inopportune times and be a general hassle. You don't want distractions of that kind when working in the shop.
It is inevitable that you will be working with power tools. Keep the tools and electrical cords dry, and overall try to keep your workplace dry also. When using extension cords, make sure they are rated for the amount of power your tool uses. Generally, if the extension cord is at least the same diameter as the cord on the tool, it will safely work. Keep extension cords out from under foot, and away from where things (like sheet metal being cut on your shear) can fall on them. If using an electrical welder, keep the working conditions dry. Make sure your workpiece is well grounded, and don't allow your body to come in contact with the workpiece while welding. Follow all safety precautions on power tools and welders.
Even if it is just to anneal wire for riveted maille rings, you will probably benefit from having a propane or MAPP torch on hand. These give off harmful fumes when in use, so ensure ventilation. When not in use, keep them somewhere where they are not likely to be tipped over or damaged in any way. MIG welders require a cylinder of shielding gas, and while not flammable, compressed gas is still very dangerous if mishandled. Make sure you have a cart for your welder that has a way to secure the cylinder. If using an oxy-acetalene rig, there are many more precautions to take (a cylinder each of flammable and non-flammable gas is no joke) and you might want to check for your town's ordinances on its use.
This hopefully covered the majority of the hazards that you are likely to encounter, but keep in mind that this was an overview. Exercise all necessary cautions with your own tools and environment, always read the manual for any tool you use, and always err on the side of safety. Be safe.