Technical Information for Gunsmiths and for Classic Car Enthusiasts

MG Restoration

Shop Safety

Les Bengtson

One of the most important aspects of any do it yourself project is safety.  Whether it is a complete engine overhaul, changing a clutch or simply changing the oil and filter, lack of safe shop practices can result in either personal injury, a damaged vehicle or both.

Some books and repair manuals give a long list of do's and don'ts when explaining shop safety.  The problem with such a list is that it is hard to remember, especially when in the middle of a project.   In thinking about this subject, it seems to me that it can be reduced to three simple rules which are easy to remember:

First, don't drop anything, especially on yourself.

Second, don't breathe bad things (except for Phoenix air, of course).

Third, don't burn up either yourself, your car or your work place.

From these three simple rules, all else becomes simply an extension.  When you work under your car, use a set of  jack stands and securely chock any wheels (both in front and in back of the wheels) that remain on the ground.  You do not want to drop the car on you.  Good jack stands are not expensive and will last years.  Chocks may be purchased or made from scrap 4"X4" wood.  Do not use concrete blocks, stacks of wood or even lengths of firewood in place of jack stands.  They can break or split, dropping your can on you.

In a similar manner, if removing an engine and transmission (or even a water pump) remember that dropping them can cause severe injury.  Keep your hands and feet out from an under them.  Also remember that heavy items, such as the cylinder head, can cause a back strain if lifted improperly, causing you to drop the item, thus breaking your foot.  While this may seem to be an efficient way of doing things (you already have to go to the emergency room for the back strain), it would be better to avoid the trip in the first place.

When working on a car, there are a number of vapors which can cause you problems.   Most know that running a car in a closed garage is not a good idea due to the build up of carbon monoxide.  You can also get a concentration of toxic vapors for several other sources.  Avoid gasoline as a cleaning agent, kerosene is both less likely to catch fire and is easier on the lungs.   When using a carb cleaner, spray grease or oil or a cleaning agent, read the warnings on the can.  If it says use in a well ventilated area, do so.  You are issued only one set of lungs, so preserve them with the same care you lavish on your car.

Because everyone is so familiar with cars (they are a defining point in modern culture), we forget how really dangerous they are.  We combine a highly inflammable, highly explosive fuel with a perfect detonator.  Gasoline and an electrical spark, under improper conditions, can be as powerful an explosive force as dynamite.  Two things can be done about this.

First, the prevention.  There is no such thing as a small leak.  A small leak simply means a smaller explosion.  With gasoline, the most dangerous situation is a large build up of vapors.  Suppose you have a "small leak" which allows  a cup of gasoline to spill our.  This turns to gasoline vapors and, being heavier than air, begins to drain out the bottom of the engine compartment.  If, however, you start your car before the vapors have had a chance to drain out (dissipate), and you have an ignition source (spark from the starter or even a bad spark plug wire) you  have a real chance of an explosion followed by a fire.  There is no such thing as a small leak, and any gas leak must be found, corrected and the vapors allowed to dissipate before attempting to start the car.

The second thing is protection.  Even if you are aware of the possibility of fire, an accident can always happen.  You should have at least one good fire extinguisher immediately at hand when working on your car.  More than one is better.  The small type available at Home Depot and other hardware stores is only minimally acceptable.  These are the small ones with the heads made out of plastic.   A couple of these immediately to hand is better than nothing at all, but a larger, quality fire extinguisher is better.  One with a rating of at least 10 BC is a good idea.  Best place to buy one is from a company that specializes in fire extinguishers.  Check for one close to you in the yellow pages.  Fire extinguishers also need to be checked on an annual basis to make sure they are working properly.   The flame retardant can compact in the bottom of the cylinder and refuse to spray out properly.  Having the unit(s) professionally on an annual basis is both easy and inexpensive.  Especially compared to the cost of your car, your house or your life.

It is also a good idea to mount a fire extinguisher in your car.  Once again, avoid the cheap, discount store variety.  I had one mounted in my Bronco and it lost half of its pressure in six months of driving.  Once again, go to a professional and get a good quality unit.  Mount it where you can get at it easily.  Both the right side of the passenger compartment foot well and the area behind the seat have been used.  On rubber bumper cars, directly behind the driver on the package shelf will work.  I have only had to use a fire extinguisher on an engine fire once.   A fellow was driving by my house when he pulled over and lifted the hood to find the engine on fire.  Fortunately, I was working on my Sprite and had a fire extinguisher immediately to hand.  I have seen several cars burning along the road side over the years.  I wonder if they might have been saved if only the operator had had the sense to keep a small fire extinguisher to hand.

One area, which does not fit into the above, is personal safety.  When you work on a car, keep your hair (especially if long) out of the way of moving parts.  Remember to protect your eyes.  Safety glasses are very inexpensive and the side shields on them can prevent pieces of grit or liquids from getting into the eyes.  Even if you normally wear glasses, wear safety glasses over them when grinding, sanding or wirebrushing.   Wear tight fitting clothing and avoid getting clothing  caught in or on anything.  It is possible to pull a heavy item off a work bench when it gets caught on clothing.  It is also possible to get your hand pulled into a spinning fan or fan belt.  Don't let it happen by planning first, then executing.

The last element of shop safety cannot be described, nor can guidelines be given.  This is attitude or focus.  When you go out to work on your car (or drive it), you need to be aware of what you are doing.  You need to be aware that you are about to begin a dangerous operation and take the proper precautions.   When you feel "out of it", are distracted or just tired, put off the work until another day.  The "arrive alive" philosophy applies to both road trips and repair projects.

This monograph may be reproduced only for non-commercial use without other permission of the author. Reproduction for commercial use only by written permission.

Copyright © 2000 by Les Bengtson