Safety Tips from the American Opal Society
by Cathy Gaber
The best advice about putting out fires is to make sure they don't happen in the first place. Even in the safest circumstances though, fires ignite anyway. The next line of defense is a smoke alarm. Each home should have one on every level and each homeowner should check it monthly to make sure it is still working. Replace the batteries when Daylight Savings time changes in the spring and fall. Replace the whole alarm unit every 10 years.
So, worst case scenario, you have a fire to deal with. What do you do? First, you need to know what kind of a fire it is and have the right fire extinguisher on hand. The basic principle for extinguishing a fire is actually to suffocate it, to deprive the fire of oxygen so it can no longer burn. Common substances such as water, baking soda and sand have their uses in putting out fires, but it is very important to use the right substance. For instance, never use water on an electrical fire as the water can cause the fire to spread. Baking soda is the best choice for your burning toaster (believe me, I've used it several times). On a camping trip, water may work for an out of control camp fire, but sand or even dirt will do the trick too.
Another alternative is commercial fire extinguishers. They are inexpensive and, used properly, very effective. The first caveats though are to make sure that you have the right kind of extinguisher for a specific fire and to know how to work the extinguisher. It is worth sacrificing an extinguisher just for practice to make sure that everyone in the family is comfortable with its use. Commercial extinguishers also require regular maintenance (as outlined in the user's manual) to maintain their efficacy.
There are four basic kinds of fires. Class A refers to fires involving wood, paper, cloth, leaves, etc. Fires involving flammable liquids, gas, oil, oil based paints and grease are Class B fires. Electrical fires are Class C, and Class D covers metals such as magnesium, potassium and sodium. No single fire extinguisher is right for all classes, though some brands work for up to three classes (A-C). You need to assess your likelihood of a potential fire based on what kind of materials you have in your home or workshop, so that you know what kind of extinguishers to buy. Classes A and C are a possibility almost anywhere, while Class B may be restricted to the kitchen, garage and workshop. An appropriate extinguisher should be placed in each room.
The effective ingredient in a Class A fire extinguisher is usually water based. Compressed air expels the water. Carbon dioxide, dry chemical and aqueous film forming foam are the choices in Class B extinguishers. They work to exclude or displace oxygen and thereby "starve" the fire. Class C agents must be electrically non-conductive. Carbon dioxide is often preferred as it leaves no residue, but other dry chemicals such as compressed nitrogen can also be used. A heat absorbing, non-reactive extinguishing medium is used for Class D fires. The dry powders cover the burning metal to create a smothering effect.
These class codes are listed on the extinguisher along with a number that denotes the relative amount of the extinguisher's fire fighting power. A rating of 20 means that the extinguisher can control 20 times more fire than one with a rating of one. Ask how long the extinguisher will expel the effective agent. A few seconds is probably not enough. Those with greater power generally weigh more, so you want to also make sure that you can handle the weight and still be able to control the action.
Now that you have purchased the appropriate extinguishers, some thought needs to be given to their placement. They should be within easy reach, in plain view (not in a cupboard for instance), but not in the reach of children too young to properly use them. They should also be located somewhere that leaves a clear exit for the user in case the fire can not be controlled. Do not store them near a stove, heater or fireplace.
If you ever need to actually use a fire extinguisher, remember the acronym PASS. 1) Pull the pin (to activate the device), 2) Aim low, toward the base of the fire, 3) Squeeze the lever to eject the extinguishing agent (some devices have a button to push instead), and 4) Sweep the extinguisher from side to side until the fire is out. Then, after you are sure the situation is under control, don't forget to replace or recharge your extinguisher.
If your fire is even remotely likely to get out of control, clear people out of the area, find your escape route, and dial 911!
By Cathy Gaber
If your shop is a tangle of cords,
by Cathy Gaber
What you do not know about a mineral can hurt you. You can not always tell by looking whether or not a mineral contains harmful elements, or if it is radioactive or if it's fumes or dust might be deadly. Most minerals are completely harmless, but with a few simple precautions you can protect yourself from those with potentially deadly effects.
Elements such as lead, mercury, arsenic, uranium, antimony and cadmium are toxic. Without proper identification, you can never be sure if you might be handling some of these potentially dangerous substances. Never lick an unidentified rock, and always wash your hands after handling one. Wear gloves if there is any suspicion that a specimen may contain harmful elements.
Three methods can be used to spot some hazardous minerals. Color is one indicator. If a specimen is an unnatural looking neon yellow, yellow orange or green (such as tyuyamunite, realgar, autunite and torbernite), it is probably a radioactive mineral. Radioactivity, which is found in over 200 minerals, can be easily detected with a geiger counter. Even though most fluorescent minerals are not radioactive, sometimes fluorescence can be an indicator, as the radioactive agent (such as uranium salts) can be fluorescent. Generally, only long term exposure or ingestion would cause problems, but, as the guys at the Smithsonian say, don't put them in your pockets either. Radioactivity can affect fertility in men.
Unless you work extensively with quartz, crystobalite, tridymite or quartz bearing rocks like granite; asbestos minerals (amosite, chrysotile, tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite and crocidolite); or coal, you are unlikely to be at risk for silicosis, asbestosis or black lung. The hazard from these and other minerals is in the airborne particles that get caught in the lungs or migrate to other areas of the body. Lapidaries should work in a well ventilated space, and they should be especially concerned with avoiding the fumes from working with materials like malachite, natural cinnabar and many shells. Wearing masks can help too. When working any new material, always check John Sinkankas' Gemstone and Mineral Data Book for precautions and possible toxicity. Be safe not sorry.
By Bruce and Cathy Gaber
If you should ever add water to acid,
by Cathy Gaber
If, in spite of your best precautions, you or your companions develop symptoms of heat related illness, these are the symptoms to watch for and the suggestions to recovery. Ample fluids are key.
Heat cramps in the arms, legs or stomach, which are due to loss of electrolytes, can be caused by heavy sweating. Recommendations: replenish body fluids with water and electrolyte rich drinks; avoid salt, caffeine and alcohol which exacerbate dehydration; and rest.
Heat exhaustion is caused when an insufficiency of body fluid causes the surface blood vessels to collapse while trying to expand to help cool off the body. Symptoms include weakness, anxiousness, dizziness, loss of coordination, sweating and possible loss of consciousness. Recommendations: Move to a cooler, shadier spot; lie down and elevate the feet to help restore blood volume; loosen clothing; place a wet cloth on the forehead; and drink electrolyte replacing drinks.
Heat stroke, the most serious of these conditions, is caused when the body is depleted of water and salt, and body temperature rises to 103 degrees or higher. Other symptoms include a lack of sweat; hot, red, dry skin; a rapid pulse; difficulty breathing; and constricted pupils. Recommendations: call 911; cool off the victim as fast as possible by immersion in cool water, swaddling in wet cloths, dousing with cool water or by applying ice.
by Cathy Gaber
No, the angle of repose has nothing to do with taking a nap (although sometimes a nap is a good safety precaution too!). The angle of repose is a geological term referring to the slope of earth materials at rest. We need to understand it in order to avoid landslides and avalanches.
A pile of material such as sand, dirt or gravel will always have the same angle of repose as a pile of similar composition. The degree of the angle is fixed for each material. Larger, irregular or wet materials (except snow) have a steeper angle, up to about 40 degrees, while sand maintains an angle of about 25 degrees, and clay, with its even finer particles, would be at rest at even less of an angle. You can demonstrate this at home even if you don't have any sand or gravel; compare mounds of sugar and rice. You can not increase the angle and still maintain stability no matter how hard you try.
Probably most of us do not have to worry too much about avalanches, but snow pack works much the same way. Dry snow has a higher angle of repose and the angle can be much higher the colder the temperature. Other factors such as centrifugal forces and wall friction also come into play, but when snow starts to melt, increasing the moisture content, the angle decreases and the snow will eventually start to move.
As long as the dirt or snow is at the angle of repose, it is not a threat to our safety, but as conditions change, warmer weather, rain or disturbing the environment by walking, digging or earthquakes, the material is not likely to remain stable. Mixed sand, gravel, etc. may fall into several angles of repose depending on which particles are dominant in any strata, which makes them particularly unpredictable. Knowing how these materials may shift can help you establish a position of safety if working in this kind of environment. Just remember that the earth will do whatever it can to reestablish the angle of repose, the slope at which it feels "comfortable" and equilibrium is possible.
By Cathy Gaber
You've heard it, probably even said it "Water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink". Most of the time we take clean, safe drinking water for granted and figure that we can always get bottled water if we need it, but in emergency situations at home or in the field, it doesn't hurt to have some idea of how to prepare drinking water. Never drink water directly out of a lake, stream, etc. unless you want to risk endangering your health through the ingestion of pesticides, parasites, animal waste and other pollutants.
One of the most effective steps in purifying water is boiling for one full minute. Start with clean looking and clean smelling water if at all possible. If the water is cloudy, filter it first through several layers of clean cloth. Once the water is boiled, it is bacterially safe to drink and should be stored in clean non-corrosive containers. If the flatness of boiled water does not appeal to you. The water can be aerated by pouring it back and forth several times between two containers. Letting it sit for several hours or adding a very small pinch of salt may also help.
Chemical treatment with chlorine or iodine can be used when boiling is unfeasible. Both work best in warm water and are not really recommended as effective for surface waters. A rough formula for using chlorine bleach is 10 drops per quart (double for cloudy water), mix and let sit 30 minutes. The water should have a slight chlorine smell. If not, repeat with half the bleach. If it smells too much like chlorine, let it sit for several hours or aerate as above. Iodine from your first aid kit can be used at the rate of 5 drops per quart (again double for cloudy water) with a 30 minute resting period. Chlorine or iodine tablets can also be purchased at sporting goods stores. Follow the package directions.
Just because you are in a foreign country, do not think the same methods don't apply. An adage for travel is "Don't drink the water". This is not a joke, and the problem is not confined to drinking the water. Do not use ice in your drinks, brush your teeth, wash your food or cook anything to less than boiling unless you are sure the water is safe. You may not have access to a stove or be able to build a fire, but if you have electricity, an inexpensive immersion heater can be used. It takes patience, and you can't boil much water at a time, but it is effective. If water is only filtered, it should definitely still be boiled. The chemicals above can also be used. One of my favorite stories about traveling in India came from a very proper English school teacher. Whenever she was uncertain if the water would be safe to drink, she had an ingenious solution for brushing her teeth without using water. She used gin!
For more detailed information, check out <http://www.epa.gov/OGWDW/>
by Cathy Gaber
Both water and meadows draw lightning
by Cathy Gaber
Anytime you travel or go on a field trip, don't assume you are going to return home on time. Airlines are notorious for canceled and delayed flights, but trains can also be late and cars, trucks, motorcycles and even bicycles can breakdown preventing a timely return. You do not want to be without your medications in situations like this. Factors such how far you are traveling, how reliable is the method of transportation, how remote is the destination or how likely is the weather to cause problems dictate whether having extra medications for one day or several is indicated.
Even for what is expected to be a day trip, it is always prudent to take an extra dose of any medication that is taken daily, such as medicines for hypertension, heart disease or diabetes. On a longer trip take at least one extra dose more than you expect to need. If there is any chance that water will not be available for those medications which need to be taken with water, then make sure you pack water. Likewise, some medicines need to be taken with food, so you need to take appropriate food.
Other medications that might be wise to include are pain killers, such as aspirin, tylenol or ibuprofen, cold medications, antacids, antibiotic cream, diarrhea medicines, and any other medicines, prescription or not, that you might typically use at home. If you are subject to anaphylactic shock, don't forget a bee sting kit, and in some areas, a snake bite kit could come in very handy.
Not having many of these medications available for a day or two might not be life threatening, but others may make a big difference to your health or comfort. The small effort to pack these items will not only bring peace of mind but may possibly save your life.
by Cathy Gaber
You're ready for your field trip, you have your tools, safety equipment, water, etc. packed and you've made plans for what to do with the great minerals or rough you will find. Have you given any thought to getting your vehicle ready for the trip too?
Nothing replaces regular maintenance as one of the best safeguards to a car or truck's continued reliable service, but before a trip, there are a number of things that should be specifically checked. Tires should be examined for bald spots and appropriate air pressure. A simple gauge that can be kept in the glove compartment is an easy way to test the latter. Car fluids should also be checked. Be sure the oil, radiator fluid, battery water and window wash fluid are at the proper levels, and don't forget gas! It might also be a wise idea to carry extra containers of all of these fluids, especially if you will be any distance from "civilization". It doesn't hurt to clean the battery contacts, and if there is any doubt about the battery's condition, replace it.
To be really prepared, there are a number of useful items to pack in your vehicle. Jumper cables, a tire patch kit, a flashlight, flares, matches, a shovel and kitty litter (to be used to increase traction) are all practical things to have. A real spare tire is definitely preferable to a "toy" temporary tire which will not hold up over long distances or rough terrain. None of these things will do you any good though if you do not know how to use them. Learn to change a tire or patch one, know how to use jumper cables and how to replace your vehicle fluids. A seldom needed item, a winch, could be a real life saver if you do any off road driving especially in wet, boggy terrain.
Another potential hazard to watch for especially in rough terrain is your vehicle's clearance capabilities. A low clearance family sedan, especially weighted down with a few hundred pounds of freshly collected rock, runs the danger of bottoming out, possibly damaging the suspension or puncturing the oil pan. When in doubt, don't put you or your vehicle at risk.
For your own comfort, food, water and a blanket are also sensible additions. For peace of mind, you should also have your insurance provider's and roadside service's phone numbers handy. Last but not least, use your seatbelt.
There is nothing worse than a field trip gone unnecessarily bad by negligent vehicle preparation. It only takes a few minutes to give your car or truck the best possible chance to carry you safely and comfortably to and from your destination.
by Bruce and Cathy Gaber
There once was a fellow named Ratchet,
By Cathy Gaber
When you start working on a flat lap, a lapidary wheel, a polishing buff or a saw, you know what you plan to take off of your slab or nodule. Do you also think about what you should take off of yourself to make the project a safer one? Take off all of your jewelry. Necklaces may be obvious, but even a flat, tight ring has the potential to get snagged by the machinery. Take off any loose clothing, a tie (heaven forbid you would be wearing one in the shop in the first place!), a scarf, long open sleeves, etc. You probably can't take off your hair, but you should secure it safely out of the way.
After you've taken it off, what do you want to add on? Safety glasses are always a must, an apron is highly recommended. Rubber and leather aprons give even more protection. For some tasks, gloves might even come in handy.
Lastly, if you are interrupted or distracted, always take your work off the machine, not your eyes off of the work!
by Cathy Gaber
"Leaves of three, let them be." Can you recognize the poisonous trio - ivy, oak and sumac? You should, even if you have never been allergic. Experts at the American Academy of Dermatology report that approximately 85 percent of the population will develop an allergic reaction to poison ivy, oak or sumac if exposed to them.
The active ingredient that causes the contact dermatitis is an oil called urushiol. It can remain an irritant for a year or more on clothing or tools if not washed off. Urushiol can become airborne if the plants are burned, potentially causing serious harm to eyes, throat and lungs, so mind your campfire well.
Poison ivy has slightly glossy green leaves that grow in groups of three. The leaf shape may vary, and the plant may grow as a vine or as a low shrub. The plant may produce yellow-green flowers and greenish white berries that resemble a peeled orange. In winter, it can also be recognized as a hairy red vine on trees. Poison ivy can be found throughout the United States, although it is most common in the eastern and central portions.
Poison oak looks similar although it is usually more shrub-like, and its leaves are shaped somewhat like oak leaves. The hairy undersides of the leaves are always a much lighter green than the surface. The plant may develop hanging clusters of greenish or creamy white berries, although many plants bear no fruit. Poison oak grows on the west coast of North America.
Poison sumac grows mainly in uninhabited areas, especially in swampy locations. It grows to about 5 or 6 feet high, with 7 to 13 leaflets of elongated leaves arranged in pairs, with a single leaflet at the end of the midrib. Poison sumac can be distinguished from harmless sumacs by its drooping clusters of green berries. Harmless sumacs have red, upright berry clusters.
There is no effective prevention but avoidance. Long pants, long sleeves, gloves, etc. will help protect your skin. For best results, wash contaminated skin within 5 minutes with soap and water. Remember to wash clothes and tools as soon as possible. Pet fur can carry the oil too, so if Fido went with you, he'll need a bath too.
If you do get a rash, a doctor can prescribe oral antihistamines or corticosteroids and corticosteroid lotions and skin creams.
by Cathy Gaber
Give some thought to the items you pack,
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Last Revised on
October 17, 2011