SAFETY FOCUS: Practical Safety Considerations for Portable Machine Tool Operation

The practical utilization of portable equipment has increased as companies have realized the time and cost savings that results from performing precision machining in-place on existing piping systems. Portable machining is widely used in power plants, municipal utilities, new construction, maintenance and countless other applications.


Operation of any hydraulic, electric, or pneumatically powered machinery can be dangerous if the power source is not disconnected from the tool while installing, making adjustments, changing or adjusting tool bits, or while repositioning or removing the equipment. Accidents can occur while moving or working with a machine when the power is still connected, even if someone else bumps or actuates a control valve or switch.

Power triggers or on-off valves that are intended to shut the tool down when released should never be tied down with a cord or zip-ties. Dead-Man controls should be used for portable machining whenever possible. Always observe applicable Lock-Out/Tag-Out procedures and always ensure that all machining operations comply with any existing safety procedures for the job site you’re on.


Secure both the machinery and work piece. Portable machine tools accept the torque of the machining operation through secure equipment mounting. It’s critical that machine mounting is rigid and strong to provide the stability required for the machining process.
Always keep in mind that support must be provided before and after a cut is performed. Pipe must be restrained with chain-falls, come-alongs, etc. to prevent any movement from released cold stresses induced by welding process, whip restraints, and supports (or lack of supports), etc. As the bit cuts through at the cut line, the pipe may separate without warning and rapidly shift with force sufficient to damage machines and eject parts with enough velocity to cause considerable physical harm. All mounting and work supports must be able to accept the dead weight of any shifting loads.


Be prepared to manage heavy cutoff sections from the work piece. When pipes, flanges, fittings, valves and other components are machined in place, attention must be given to safe machine lifting and placement as well as preventing severed sections falling on other personnel that may be located under the operation or on lower floors or scaffolding.


Organize and prepare the complete work area to be “safe and secure.” Chips on the floor of the work area can cut into, sever or short-out electrical cords. Sharp chips can completely cut hoses or lines if stepped on or if machinery is rolled over them. Always have brooms and waste containers handy and manage work area cutting debris. In situations where a great amount of metal is being removed, plan on occasional breaks to make necessary cleanup to prevent unsafe accumulation of cutting debris.


Many portable machine tools have rotating elements that can extend beyond the mounting width of the machine or the work piece. Extreme care must be taken so that there is ample clearance in the immediate area of the machine to permit the machine to operate without physical obstruction. The rotating elements of a machine represent a significant danger to the operator in that they can create “pinch-points” between rotating and non-rotating elements of the machine, as well as with objects like other pipes, machinery, bulkheads or walls in the immediate area. In addition, ropes, hydraulic lines, cables, etc. that become caught in rotating equipment can become a serious hazard, entangling and constricting. Do not perform any adjustment, chip clearing, measurement, or work piece inspection, which would place an object or the operator in the moving path of a machine.


Carefully check your equipment. It must be fully operational, maintained and in ideal working order. This includes fresh, sharp bits appropriate for the machining operation, any required attachments, properly configured and maintained – with all safety features operable. At no time should any safety device, guard, or protective feature of a machine be disconnected, removed, defeated, or overridden. To do so would intentionally place the operator or others at increased risk of accident.


“Cold cutting” (no flame) generates a lot of extremely hot chips as they peel off the tool bit. The chips remain a safety concern even after cooling off due to their sharpness and accumulation in the immediate work area. Chips can cause severe cuts while being cleared from operating machines and long chips can “drag” over and whip around the machine, posing a serious safety concern. Never attempt to remove built-up chips from a machine with your bare hands, and use boots with soles to protect you from razor sharp chips.
Eye safety devices must be worn at all times to protect the operator from flying sharp cutting debris. In addition, some portable machining operations generate increased sound levels that may require that hearing protection be worn also.
Never operate any portable machinery with loose fitting clothing, headsets, jewelry, identity badges, personal audio devices, or any other items which could become tangled in the machine as it operates.


It is critically important to be aware of your skill and familiarity with the equipment. If you are not comfortable with your ability or training level on a particular machine, ask to be further trained and/or safety checked for the machinery you intend to use to prevent hazards to you and those you work with. In addition, operators must have knowledge of how to shut a machine down immediately in case of an emergency. Always operate the machine from a position where you can safely react to rapidly occurring dangerous conditions.


Adequate common sense must be applied to portable machining as with any other situation where operation of the equipment while under the effects of alcohol, prescription drugs, distractions such as talking, eating, smoking, using a cell phone, or any other activity could limit concentration or the focus of the operator to use the machinery in the safest manner.

To summarize, operators of portable machine tools must be satisfied and confident that they have done everything possible to prepare and ensure they can perform a safe machining result for the specific work situation.

Always remember that safe equipment operation cannot be “built-in” to any machine – a safe and responsible operator can only supply that factor!

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