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Muscle memory

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A painful lesson served as a reminder that a particular cause of shop accidents can happen incredibly easily. Fortunately, the painful lesson didn’t occur in the shop.

I talked recently about my new grill and finally got the chance to break it in over the weekend. I had my old grill nearly 14 years, so you can imagine just how much I’d gotten used to cooking on it. But that was the painful lesson.

The first time I opened the grill to flip the chicken and corn-on-the-cob on the new grill, when I went to close it I grabbed the edge of the lid instead of the handle. Ouch. No serious burn or anything, but it was an eye-opener. Called myself a derisive name for not paying attention and went back to cooking. (For the curious, the derisive name was “you silly doo-doo head.” No, really.)

However, the next time I rotated the corn I did the same thing – when I went to close it, once again I grabbed the edge of the lid. Not long later, I did it again. And then a fourth time.

When I almost did it a fifth time it occurred to me that I was so very familiar with my old grill that after repeating a common action probably thousands of times over 14 years, that action had become a simple muscle memory. I wasn’t thinking about closing that grill, I was just doing it as part of an ingrained pattern and my hand was going where it always went. Trouble was, the grill handle wasn’t in that spot anymore, but about 2" farther out. Still, my hand thought it knew where to go.

My point is this: Have you ever replaced a shop machine after using its predecessor for years, or plan to? If so, chances are good you’ve developed a muscle memory for it the same way. Imagine my grill faux pas, but apply it to a table saw. Or shaper. Or jointer. It’s imperative when working in the shop that you never fall into potentially dangerous patterns.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to do.


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