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How to Use a Rock Hammer Safely

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Rock hammer and greenstone

Hammers are also handy for scale in photos

Geology Guide photo, from California subduction transect stop 31

The rock hammer is a powerful tool that takes practice to use well. Here's how to be safe as you do so.

What's Dangerous About Hammering

Hammers aren't hazardous by themselves. What's around them is what creates danger.

Rocks: Splinters from breaking rock can fly out in all directions. Broken rock pieces can fall on your feet or against your body. Rock exposures can sometimes be precarious and collapse. Piled-up rock at the base of an exposure can give way under your weight.

Tools: Hammers and chisels are made of hard steel. This material can splinter, too, especially as the metal grows deformed with heavy use.

The field: Roadcuts can put you very close to passing traffic. Overhangs can drop rocks on your head. And don't forget the local plants and animals.

Before You Start Hammering

Dress right. Protect your body from dings and scratches with long sleeves and pants. Wear shoes with closed toes, and bring a helmet if you're working in caves or cliffs. In wet conditions, wear gloves for a good grip.

Be location-aware. At a roadside exposure, you may want a reflective vest. Look at what's overhead. Stand where a slip won't hurt you. Beware of hazardous plants like poison oak/ivy. Always know the local snakes and insects, too.

Put on eye protection. Shutting your eyes as you swing is not the right tactic. Ordinary glasses are usually good enough for me, but everyone needs some kind of coverage, including bystanders. Plastic goggles are cheap and effective.

Use the right hammer. The rock you're addressing will behave best under a hammer of the right weight, handle length and head design. Geologists choose one or two appropriate hammers before setting out, considering the type of rock they expect that day.

Have your procedure planned. Are you following the most effective strategy for your goals? Can you get your hands free quickly if you slip? Are your chisel and magnifier handy?

Hammer the Right Way

Don't take chances. If you haven't brought a helmet, don't go under overhangs. If you have to stretch out on one foot to reach a rock at arm's length, stop—you're going about things the wrong way.

Use tools the way they're meant to be used. Never hammer another hammer—the two hard metals can strike nasty splinters off each other. The butt end of a chisel is made of softer steel than the hammer for that reason.

Swing deliberately. Treat each blow like a play in a card game: know what you want to happen and have a plan for when it doesn't happen. Don't stand in a way that exposes your legs to accidental blows or falling rocks. If your arm is tired, take a break.

Don't miss. A missed blow can send out splinters, strike sparks or hit your hand. A plastic hand guard fits on the chisel and helps prevent mishaps. Worn-out, rounded chisels and hammer heads can slip, too, so old tools should either be touched up or replaced.

Hammer no more than necessary. Your time is better spent making observations, thinking about what you see, and enjoying your day in the field.

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