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Cause and effect

“Accidents happen for a reason.” Sound familiar? It should, as the phrase has been drummed into our heads for years. Too bad it’s not true.

In truth, accidents happen for a cause, not a reason, although both are involved. Accidents are physical things, and occur due to physical causes. Those causes are revealed by answering the question how. Reason comes into play when you consider why an accident happened.

For example, consider, “How did the kickback injury happen?” A piece of stock contacted the blade improperly (pinched against the blade; vibration caused a loose piece to “walk” into the blade; etc.), causing it to be thrown at the operator. But remember that was the cause of the kickback, not the reason.

The reasons for accidents always involve decisions that are responsible for the causes, but aren’t the causes themselves. “Why did the kickback injury happen?” The reason was that an improper decision or action was taken: He didn’t use a splitter; he cut the strip so the offcut was between the blade and fence; he was standing in the wrong place; etc.

On the other hand, avoiding injury always happens for a reason; cause has nothing to do with it at all. The physics of what caused an accident are still there, but reason helps you avoid them.

I was milling a rabbet around the edges of a box lid on my router table a few weeks ago. There was a tiny but very tight knot inside the piece I was routing, right on the edge, completely hidden from the outside of the stock. When the router bit hit that spot, it kicked the workpiece back and away from the bit. I never expected that, but although the cause was still there and the kickback still occurred, I wasn’t hurt nor was I in danger of being hurt. Why? By conscious decision, I was taking my time, holding the workpiece securely, and had not yet set the bit to cut the full depth of the rabbet. Further, whenever the workpiece is small, which this was, I always use a backer board to help push it through the bit, and that absorbed almost all the force of the kickback.

Unknown conditions inside the workpiece and simple physics were the cause of the kickback; but it was reason that kept me from getting hurt.

A trivial argument of semantics? Sure, but I’ll take reason over cause any day.

Till next time,


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