Guide to Health and Safety

This is meant to be an article about avoiding health robing practices when installing a new or sanding an old hardwood floor. But it may turn out to be a treatise on how to learn from the mistakes of others. Namely, my own really deadly mistakes.

What prompted me to write this, was a previous article I wrote some time ago called Lacquer Finish Floor Fires, in the Floored News section. I realize now what I have done to my health over the years is similar to what these poor floor men did in just a few seconds, when they were burned alive, applying a cheap lacquer sealer on a basement floor.

My brush with death came in the spring of 1998, when after recovering from a serious bout of pneumonia (that took 6 months), my blood tests were still not normal. After a battery of tests, the docs discovered I had Hairy Cell Leukemia. Don’t be too alarmed, I dying so slowly it will take 20 years or more. This should give me quite a bit more time than these guys had to warn you about potential health concerns. But I usually don’t mention brand names specifically, only the deadly components, when talking about ill-advised products. It will be up to you to discover the toxic components in these finishes and floors, and avoid them. That’s what the MSD sheets are for.

Let’s begin with protecting your toes and work north. Steel toe and shanked work boots are a real pain to wear, and I see most wood floor mechanics wearing nothing but running shoes these days. The piercing pain of a nail in your instep or the crushing fall of some part of the heavy drum sander will teach you this much too late. One of my employees had the 100-pound motor of the drum sander fall from his hands, and land squarely on his foot. But thank goodness he was wearing running shoes WITH steel toes. He was only away from work for a week, with a sore foot, instead of smashing the bones, and walking with a permanent limp.

My knees have suffered tremendously over these 23 years in the floor business. I’m often asked, “how are your knees?”, and I will quip back “what knees?” All joking aside there was a point about a year ago when I thought my sensitive and painful knees would spell the end of my floor career. I’ve tried just about every kneepad available, and about the only thing they accomplish is to make sweaty knees. Well along comes Pro Knee (at and I’ve got another couple of decades of use out of my sorry old leg joints. I’m not kidding when I say thesereally work. They have a

hard shield to protect your knees and lower leg against the harm. But here’s the real magic: They lift your feet just off the floor as you kneel so that your feet swing free. I’ve never seen or felt anything like it. They are expensive, and must be custom fitted to your leg, but my knees thank me every day. Check it out, before you are crippled. Just go to the web site and take a look at these easy to order orthopedic kneepads. You will not long remember how much you spent protecting your knees, but you will thank the guy who invented these every day you wear them.


Lets talk about your skin, after all this is the biggest organ of your body. Expose it to too many toxic solvents, and you may end up with a oncologist as a second doctor, just like I have. In one of my early articles about the Dura Seal 1000 water base finish (in the Floored News), I mention all the nasty chemicals in this comparatively safe finish. But when the Dura Seal company rep read it, he remarked “We really don’t like to emphasize this aspect of our product”. While I may have lost a potential corporate sponsor, I was simply trying to warn you of the hazards with even water-based finishes. Skin contact with this stuff is not a good idea, but don’t pour it down the drain, the fish cannot handle these deadly solvents either. Even with water based finishes you will need to wear rubber gloves. Some of the most durable water based finishes have a azridine hardener (ETHYLENEIMINE) additive. Come into contact with this stuff and you risk skin irritation, tumors and even cancer. Who said all water-based finishes are safe?

When you clean up after water based finishes, you can dispose of the wash water by pouring it into a large tray, and letting the water evaporate off. The left over film will be fairly safe to dispose in the landfill. This goes double when you use oil based floor finishes. Wash your brushes with solvent, and keep the solvent. When you have enough, bring to your local solvent recycle station, run privately or to your toxic waste disposal transfer site, run by your town or city. Some municipalities have a toxic taxi, which will pick up your solvent wastes once a year. Be sure you store them in a safe place, in the mean time. Or you can let the solids in the solvent settle, filter it and reuse it yourself. This could make oil based finishes a lot less polluting.

Your lungs can suffer from the dust and the fumes of finishing a floor. It’s like a double toxic whammy. If your old floor finish was applied before about 1970 it may contain lead acetate in its metallic driers. This dry film is fairly safe, until you fill the air with the dust of this finish, during resanding. It may be worth your while, to test the finish for lead BEFORE you begin. Then figure what alternative methods besides sanding you should use to restore this floor.

I get a lot of inquiries about how to remove the old back adhesive used before the 1960’s to glue down many tile floors over a nice old hardwood or softwood floors. Very commonly these adhesives (black or brown) contained asbestos, and should never be sanded. They are called asphalt cut back adhesives, and should only be wet stripped. So how does one do this? Read on.

There are alternatives to sanding off an old finish. I wrote an article on how to safely chemically strip wood floors. The lead and asbestos content on these floors are yet another reason to use this method. You’ll find the article in the Floored News section. Using the products I mention in this article will give you little or no toxic exposure to the lead in the finish. Disposal of the used stripper poses little problems, as the left over goo contains only doubly diluted lead. But frankly, with the asbestos cut back adhesive, you should call in a local expert to confirm that this is a safe method. The stripper itself at least is only mildly toxic (Citristrip).

But even if the lead content in the finish is low or non existent there are several things you can do to minimize your exposure to wood dust. Wood dust itself is a suspected carcinogen. The large drum sander is not so prone to creating dust. It has efficient and powerful vacuum, and as long as you don’t have a hole in the dust bag, the dust is minimal. The real culprit is the little edger. It simply spews dust, due to its rapid removal of floor material. Pro Sand ® floor machines ( have come up with an elegant and simple method of eliminating this dust. This may even allow of the safe sanding of leaded paint and varnished floors. It consists of a industrial vacuum attached to the edger, with a power cord and switch, all integrated. I’ve managed to imitate this system myself, until I can afford to buy a Pro Sand ®. Simply hook up your edger to the hose of a really big industrial vacuum, turn it on, and enjoy dust free edging.

As side benefit, you are able to see the perimeter of the floor much better as you go. The light on the edger finally will show you your fine edger marks, so you can keep them to a minimum. I hope to see this system in the more enlightened rental stores. You can also get a floor buffer that attaches to the vacuum in the same way from Pro Sand ®. This will allow the floor mechanic to be truly dust less in the final sanding or screening between coats. With the Pro Sand buffer you can screen and re-coat old finishes, and assure yourself and your client a really dust free job. This will avoid having to use all those mildly toxic and expensive liquids that supposedly chemically etch the floor in preparation for re-coating.

One more thing about sanding dust before I move on. I’m a little alarmed to see most prefinished wood floor makers using aluminum oxide as an additive in the factory applied conversion finish. This will not be toxic in the manufacturing process, or in daily use of your floor. But think for a second, what happens when these floors are sanded some time in the future. Aluminum oxide is a lung irritant and a possible carcinogen. Oh, you may think I’m never going to have to sand a floor with a 25-year warranty on it. The next article I’ll write is all about the reality and fantasy of these warranties. Suffice it to say here, that depending on how you treat the floor, all those little dents and gouges will only go away with a resanding. How soon you will need to resand a floor depends on how you care for it. Please read my floor maintenance article in the Floored News, so that you can put off this sanding almost indefinitely.

But when you have to sand, at least wear good dust masks. I rarely find decent ones at my local hardware store or big box store, they are just trying to sell you the cheapest model. Go to and search their site for chemical and dust masks. You might find yourself spending as much as 2-3 dollars a day to save your lungs when floor sanding. If you find this too pricey, try buying a set of lightly used lungs when yours are worn out.

It’s quite a nuisance to wear but use a activated charcoal mask when applying any floor finish. Be sure to bring a kerchief with you so that the condensation that inevitably leaks from the mask doesn’t drip into the finish.

Or better yet get one of those fan driven face masks, that blow the filtered air over your face covered in a Plexiglas mask. This you should use for the most toxic moisture cured urethanes and Swedish finishes. You may find your vision too restricted by this sort of mask in every day use with water based or oil based finishes. So a normal respirator will do with these coatings. And yes, you even should use masks when applying water based finishes, these contain toxic solvents too. Be sure to read the Dura Seal Article in this site if you doubt this.

I’ll end this article at the top of your head, where your ears and eyes are. I only hope you are still listening. I suffered hearing loss early in my career when it was considered not manly to wear earphones. But it didn’t take me too long to get over that. All the machines including those industrial vacuums have ear-damaging decibels coming from them. Once you’ve lost your hearing you will never get it back. What’s that you say? YOU NEVER GET IT BACK, I SAID !!!!!!

Why don’t you try one of the new types of ear protectors. You can enjoy your favorite tunes, with the more expensive models that have FM stereo radios (available at With it’s built in loud sound protected microphone you can hear normal conversations easily when the loud noises cease.

Your eyes need to be protected while hammering nails. All it takes is a sliver of metal to impair your vision for life. And the silicone carbide sanding particles coming off the edger will harmlessly bounce off your safety glasses, IF YOU REMEMBERED TO WEAR THEM.

Oh, and let me go back to your knees once again. It has been discovered by knee surgeons that too much walking on hard surfaces causes damage to knee joints. Genetically speaking, we are more suited to the grassy savanna, and need some cushioning for our feet. And guess what floor surface promotes this knee damage, yes, our beloved hardwood floors. I see too many houses these days with acres of hardwood, and not a soft area carpet in sight. My knees just ache at the sight. Add area carpets generously, and wear cushioned indoor shoes. Apparently Burkenstock or Mephisto sandals are just the thing.

All in all, I believe that you will enjoy your work more by feeling more comfortable and protected. You will be able to take your time and do the job well the first time. The real expensive job is the one that needs to be done over and over because the tradesmen rushes through the essential steps. Rushing because of knee problems, back aches, or trying to finish before the toxic fumes overwhelm them. If trades people refuse to protect themselves, how will they treat you and your floor? As far as I know, we are given only one body, and one life, this is not a dress rehearsal. Why not be comfortable in you own skin, and make this journey called LIFE, last as long as possible?