In a wood shop, the most important safety guard is a competent operator. Practice good habits and use the right tools to prevent injury.
Your table saw likely comes with safety features such as guards, riving knives, splitters, or a Saw Stop. While all these tools provide a measure of protection from injury, YOU are the #1 safety guard in your shop. Here, I talk about my favorite push stick (and what makes it great), and then demonstrate good table saw practice as I was taught in the Cabinet and Furniture Making program at North Bennet Street School (NBSS) in Boston, MA. This method has kept me safe for many, many years.
You may notice that the table saw I'm using for demonstration does not have a guard. Don't worry - if you're astute you'll also notice that the blade isn't moving, either. These are staged photos intended to give you a clear picture of where your hands and the wood should be.
In addition to the safety features provided by your machinery and good common sense, always remember to wear safety glasses and earplugs when operating machinery in the shop.
This is the wrong push stick. No control at all. It just pushes forward. It's like closing your eyes and hoping for the best.
This is the push stick you need. Easy to make. This pattern is straight out of the course material at NBSS. The handle is high enough that if you have the blade height correct (bottom of the gullets to the top of the wood), your hand is well out of the way. The heel pushes forward and the toe has enough leverage to hold the piece down as well as push it against the fence. Also, if you cut something < 3/4" you can still use this stick. It will cut a groove in the heel, but once you lose too much material just make a new one. I usually have a handful on the saw at all times.
Start the cut, have the stick ready on the other side of the fence. Another advantage of this design is the handle stick up to grab easy. Right hand pushing left hand guiding. The throat plate is the danger zone. Never should you ever have your hands in the airspace of the throat plate, no fly zone. Your body should be to the left of the blade, outside of kickback zone. Firm stance, feet spread, body square not twisted or leaning.
As you push forward the left hand stays put. Do not move the left hand with the wood, just let it slide by. Keep your fingers together. Not spread apart. Trailing fingers are dangerous. Pretend you have paddles for hands.
As the end of the board comes on the table pause for a second, holding with your left hand. Grab the push stick with the right hand and engage it on the wood.
Using the push stick press forward, while also pressing down and into the fence. Again, keep the left hand fixed, it never moves.
As the end of the board passes the left hand, do not follow it. I'm saying it again for emphasis: do not follow the board with your left hand. Take that meat hand and grab the left corner of the table. That hand's job is done and has no business anywhere near the blade or wood. The only thing it could do at this point is get in the way and get hurt. Grabbing the table not only becomes a muscle memory cue, it also gives you more stability as you push the board through the blade. Some saws have a longer distance from the edge of the table to the blade, so you might have to lean a little.
Continue forward through the cut.
Cut finished. Don't reach behind the blade. Turn the saw off and wait for it to spin down. The risk is not worth saving 30 seconds. You can use the heel of the push stick to knock the cutoff away from the blade as well. Another rule is not to have a thin cut off that could slip between the blade and the throat plate. It can kick the throat plate out or bind up your cut. Take a series of dust cuts if you need to avoid a thin cutoff.
If you'd like to make your own push stick, you're in luck! I've created a couple of printable versions for you, including a digitized version you can run through a CNC machine. Enjoy.