What Do You Know?

Fill empty headspace with safety information.

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by Ellery Borow, AFMS Safety Chair

The brain has a remarkable ability to forget things. I’ve often thought such an ability to be very useful for quite a number of reasons. One of those reasons is to clear out the clutter that accumulates, and in doing so make room for new stuff. So, what do you know? What new information are you stuffing into the places where information has been forgotten? Are you filling the newfound storage space in your head with good and useful information?

May I offer the following quote by Laurens VanDerPost: “Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right.” Over the years, I have heard many variations on those words, such as, “It’s not what one knows, but what one doesn’t know that’s the problem” and “It’s not what one knows, it’s what one knows that isn’t so.”

Please permit me to mention some examples of rockhound safety information that can often be forgotten:

Oxalic Acid. There is a common understanding that oxalic acid is relatively safe. Here are some facts: Compared to many acids, oxalic is relatively weak. An acid’s strength is measured by how readily hydrogen is given up in water (its Ka value). Oxalic acid has a Ka of 0.0054 (primary) and 0.0000523 (tertiary), so when compared with hydrochloric acid’s Ka of 1.0 or nitric’s Ka of 27.79, oxalic is weak. One important fact that is often omitted in the rockhound community is that there is no correlation between an acid’s strength and its toxicity. So while the rockhound community understands that oxalic acid may be relatively weak, what is not well known is that—gram for gram—oxalic acid is highly toxic. It can be inhaled or readily absorbed through the skin. Very strict safety measures must be followed to address oxalic’s toxicity.

Grindstone Safety. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen lapidary workers standing or sitting in front of rapidly rotating grindstones while doing their work. Each time I see such a body position, chills run up and down my spine. You should not sit or stand directly in front of a grindstone while starting the machine or shutting it down. Nor is it wise to position yourself in front of it while it is running. The reason is that grindstones have the potential to break apart. Admittedly, the risk is small, but nevertheless, it exists. Equipment guards do mitigate some of the risk potential, but—according to machine instructions—not all the risk. I have personally seen the evidence of a self-destructed grindstone and been in the shop when one was self-destructing. Needless to say, a great deal of damage can be done by such an event. So, I highly recommend not standing in the path of anything that can injure you.

Diamond and belted wheels are considerably less problematic. Eye protective goggles are great, but there is more to the story. Have you ever noticed that when you are digging for minerals, hammering on big boulders, or doing some extensive lapidary work, a good measure of dust accumulates on the inside of your goggles? I have noticed that effect quite often. Most goggles are ventilated to prevent fogging, and that venting, in addition to some mysterious force, permits accumulation of dust on the inside surfaces of the goggles. Here’s the thing: We have protected our eyes with the goggles, and those goggles have provided notice that there is a large amount of dust present, which is most likely not being addressed by the wearing of a dust mask. In these less-than-obvious instances, dust protection is advisable.

So now you know. When filling your head with new information, please make sure safety issues are considered. Let’s put the newfound memory space to its highest and best use.


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