Wood pallets have become a popular source of material for upcycling into a range of products, especially for simple crafts projects. When looking for free wood pallets or working with them, it's important to consider safety precautions to ensure a successful project outcome.
The Relevance of Pallet Stamps
Many articles about pallet safety place top priority on finding pallets that have an ISPM-15 stamp or other stamps, such as EPAL, to confirm that pallets that are safe to use. This advice is nonsense.
While pallet markings are important to the regulations mentioned above, for the crafter, pallet stamps are not a top priority at all. The ISPM-15 heat treatment stamp, for example, indicates that the pallet—as a whole or its components—has been charged in a heat chamber to the required temperature for the required length of time. While this treatment eliminates insect infestation at the time of the application, it does not help the prospective pallet scrap crafter to understand the subsequent history and potential exposures of the pallet.
Another oft-repeated and curious cautionary note is to avoid pallets with an MB (methyl bromide) treatment stamp. In the first place, you are highly unlikely to find an MB stamped pallet in North America. Second, the MB quickly dissipates in an open-air environment. It's akin to carbon monoxide from your exhaust—only a problem if you're shut in your garage. MB treatment is not going to cause a problem unless you are working in an enclosed area with a pallet you somehow obtained immediately after treatment, which is extremely unlikely.
The Threat of Chemicals
Several pallet articles discuss the threat of "chemically treated" pallets. Pallet treatment isn't a problem. The main chemicals used on pallets are mold treatments and MB. The MB dissipates upon air contact, and mold treatments (which are applied to some HT-stamped pallets, contrary to some advice) dissipate in 15 to 30 days, long before the affected pallets will end up in the hands of pallet crafters.
Clean, New-Condition Pallets With Good Pedigree
Some of the better articles do offer good advice concerning sourcing pallets that look clean and don't have evidence of spills or other contaminants, but this is often buried behind semi-relevant information about pallet markings and chemicals. Where possible, look for new-condition pallets that appear clean and dry. Additionally, source pallets from supply chains where there will be less risk of contamination. Fast-moving consumer goods supply chains are often good sources, but even here, pallets can be subject to spills of milk or other products. Always take the time to inspect the wood.
Often you will find pallets that are weathered with some degree of soiling, and these will work well for some projects. Keep in mind that you do not want to risk anyone puncturing their skin with slivers from bacteria-harboring wood, nor to display such wood in an indoor setting if it is potentially moldy. There have been cases where slivers from dirty pallets have caused blood infections. One temporary pallet art installation in a public building had to be quickly dismantled when it spread mold spores throughout the building.
In all the talk of pallet safety, it's ironic that safe handling practices are often overlooked. When handling pallets or working with them, be sure to wear appropriate safety equipment, such as puncture-proof gloves and safety shoes. Clothing that covers legs and arms will make them less susceptible to slivers. Proper lifting is important, as well as effectively securing pallets for transport. Employ general woodworking safety precautions when crafting, including the use of safety glasses and particle masks.
Reusing pallets to craft a variety of goods for your home or business is a great way to get perfectly good wood out of the waste stream. Exercise some caution and a lot of common sense, and you'll find plenty of wood for your projects.