When I first started working with pallet wood, I knew nothing about woodworking and even less about pallets. I saw a few pictures on Pinterest, and decided to surprise my lovely wife with a pallet sign for her birthday. I went and grabbed a pallet from behind the dumpster at work and just dove into it. After I gave it to her, she got a spark for making a business out of making these signs. We were new, and all I had was a hand-me-down miter saw from my brother, a drill I had used for a previous job building cubicles, and a table saw I borrowed from my dad that is older than I am. I was pulling the pallets apart manually with a hammer and a pry bar, and using what planks I could get off without breaking them. I would cut the planks to length and screw some backings on them. That was the extent of my work on each sign because I then handed them off to my wife for the designing and painting. Painting is definitely not my strength, and it is definitely hers. That was it, pretty easy. The pieces were raw and simple, and business started growing fast.
It wasn’t until we got some custom orders that required a bit more detailed lettering that my wife asked me to start sanding down the planks to be more easy to paint on. We also started selling stained pieces, so these pieces needed to also be sanded before staining. I bought a cheap orbital sander, and went on my merry way cutting and sanding and staining.
Here is where the plot begins to thicken a bit. I have had asthma my whole life. It hasn’t been much of a burden on me other than a few inhaler puffs as a kid when playing backyard football in cold weather. I have always had an inhaler, but I had used it about 4 times a year and even less in my adult life. I knew that I should be wearing a face mask so I wouldn’t get saw dust in my lungs, but up until this point, I hadn’t generated enough fine dust to really breathe much in. Now that I was sanding these pallets, I noticed quickly that I need to cover my face. During this same time, I needed a more efficient way of pulling pallets apart, so I bought a sawzall and a demolition blade for wood embedded with nails. This process was also kicking up way more dust into the air for me to breath in. I bought some cheap face masks (the white ones with the rubber band that wraps around your head) and started using those, but didn’t find them helping. Things actually started getting worse and worse. I burned through a full 250 puff inhaler within a short span of a few weeks. This is alarming for anyone who uses an inhaler. My breathing was going down hill and fast. I would wake up several times in the night having a difficult time breathing. It was scary, and I needed to figure it out.
I stumbled across this website one day, and found their pallet safety post, and it changed the way that I was working with pallets. Here is the link: http://www.1001pallets.com/pallet-safety/. It honestly scared me. What was a breathing in? What damage has it done? And how can I make our product more safe for our customers?
The answer to the first question two questions is “Who knows.” Pallets get used and reused by several different companies for various reasons. While you can never be too sure what the pallet has been used for, there are ways to make sure you aren’t knowingly using unsafe pallets. When getting pallets from businesses, it is always smart to ask the manager if you can take them in the first place. While you are asking permission, you can always ask if they know where the pallets came from. Any info on what the pallets were used for can be helpful when decided whether a pallet is safe for a project.
I dont know if any damage was done to my lungs, but I decided to take extra care with making sure I dont do any more damage. I bought a respirator from the store. The ones that use cartridges. These can be fairly inexpensive, and are definitely worth the cost. I quickly noticed a huge difference! I was breathing clear again within a few days, and back to rarely using my inhaler. I am happy that I did some investigating.
As for making our products more safe for our customers, I now check each pallet that I get for the proper stamps that tell me they are not treated with chemicals. It gives a lot of information on how to safely use pallets. I also dont take or toss out pallets that look like they have spills on them because I just dont know what was spilled. I am also much more selective for the pallets I use on tables, coffee tables, headboards, or any other project that comes in close contact with people or food regularly. It is very important to seal these types of projects with several applications of a clear coat finish to make sure that the wood is sealed up nicely. I dont have any research on if this helps if the pallets have pollutants, but it is general practice anyways for these types of projects.
All of this may seem like common sense to a lot of you especially if you have woodworking experience, but I was just playing the ignorance card hoping it was just a tough season for me. I think I had a false perception that the more safety gear you use, the less manly you are. The truth is, at the beginning, I felt so cool doing “manly” things in the garage, and it wasn’t something I had experienced much before. I felt wearing all the gear was the equivalent of wearing a helmet, elbow pads, knee pads, and wrist guards while rollerblading. You may be safe, but you dont look very cool doing it. It wasn’t until I had these serious breathing issues, that appearance does not out rank health. I am proud to say that I safely use pallets to the best of my ability.
Here are the four things at the top of my list of safety gear to have while working with any wood, but especially pallet wood:
Work Gloves: You can buy these fairly cheap at any hardware store. Pallets are full of splinters and nails, so protecting your hands is a must. Find a good pair that fits your hands well, and you will not regret it.
Respirator: Like I said above, this may save your life when working with pallets that have chemicals or pollutants on them. It is a must when working with pallet wood. Make sure it has has a nice tight fit to your face.
Eye protection: Especially, when I am tearing pallets apart with the sawzall and nails are flying everywhere. I have had a few close calls with pieces of wood hitting close to my eyes.
Thick sole boots or footwear: When dealing pallets a lot of times the nails will fall out or break, and end up on your shop floor. There have been several times, where I have stepped on a nail, and it embedded into my boot. Thankfully the sole is thick and strong enough to have stopped it before I had a rusty nail in my foot.
Be safe and make safe products!
My favorite pallet safety link: http://www.1001pallets.com/pallet-safety/