When you tackle any DIY car maintenance or repair job, your primary concern should be safety. This goes for both you and your vehicle! Knowing the right tools, methods and safety equipment that you will need is always the first step. Keep in mind that not every repair and maintenance job on your vehicle works out like the pictures in the manual. Rusty parts, greasy and oily surfaces, and tight access all make working on your vehicle open to hazards. However, following a few safe work practices and investing in protective equipment should help reduce your chance of injury.
Here are some suggestions that you may find useful.
Plan ahead, and coordinate your tools and safety equipment with the vehicle DIY task that you are about to perform. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have the right tools for this project?
- Do I need to lift the vehicle and work underneath it?
- Will I be handling gas, oil or solvents?
- Does the job require using an electric drill, hammer, grinder or wire wheel?
- Will the job require loosening large fasteners, or removing heavy parts from the vehicle?
If the answer is yes to any of the above questions, you should assemble the safety equipment that you will need for the job along with the tools and materials. Here is a brief primer on DIY safety.
Tools and materials required
Have on hand some basic tools, materials and equipment, such as safety glasses, safety goggles, automotive work gloves, latex rubber gloves, disposable dust masks, paint respirator, vehicle ramps and jack stands.
The basics of the job
Safety must be part of every job. Let’s start with some basics, and then get into specific safety procedures.
- Know what you cannot do and what you shouldn’t touch. Don’t be tempted to dive right into a project when you don’t know what you’re doing. Get some experienced help and advice. In short, do your research first.
- Use the right tools. A good general rule for purchasing DIY tools is that a new tool should pay for itself the first time you use it versus having the job done professionally at a service shop. Keep this in mind, and buy quality tools that are the right tools for the job. For example, don’t use a screwdriver as a pry bar, or pliers instead of a wrench.
- Work with clean parts and good lighting. If you’re going to work on something safely, you need to see it and you need to be able to handle it. An automotive break-resistant fluorescent droplight is one of the most-used tools in a DIYer’s toolbox. Remember: You can’t fix what you can’t see.
- Keep a first aid kit and fire extinguisher nearby, in the garage, shop or vehicle. This can make the difference between a minor scrape and a much bigger problem.
- Employ the “buddy system.” If you must work alone, keep a phone nearby. Make sure that someone knows where you are and what you’re doing. In addition to being a courtesy and a good safety practice, keep in mind that your “buddy” could also offer help and advice if you need it partway through the job.
Now on to some fundamental tools and materials to help protect you and your possessions as you work on your favorite vehicle.
If you are using an electric drill, grinder or hand-held rotary tool, wear a tight-fitting T-shirt or, in colder weather, a sweatshirt. Drill bits and wire wheels can easily catch a loose shirt and wind up the material around your hand, locking it to the drill until it stops. Don’t be tempted to use the trigger lock on a power tool; this could result in a very sore hand or wrist if you catch your clothing or part of the vehicle with the drill locked in the “on” position.
When removing parts that are greasy or oily, use latex rubber gloves. They give you better grip and protect your hands from contaminants. Try using these disposable gloves for an oil change; you will be impressed by how clean your hands stay, and by how much easier it is to handle the filter and drain plug. Use latex rubber gloves with all solvents when prepping a surface to be painted and when you paint. They are great for keeping paint off your fingers.
If you are removing heavy parts (such as tires) or are trying to loosen large fasteners in tight areas, use a good pair of automotive work gloves. They help protect the knuckles and can give you better grip on tools and the parts you are removing or replacing on your vehicle. At the same time, they are still sensitive enough to hand-start small nuts and bolts. If you try these once, you will be sold on them.
Goggles and dust masks
You should consider two pieces of protective gear when using a wire wheel to remove rust or working on a rusty exhaust under a vehicle – goggles and disposable dust masks. You can see the value of the dust mask when you look in the mirror after using one for a while and see what you might have breathed in. In addition, you should always wear goggles or safety glasses when drilling or grinding.
Protection for your lungs
If you have to use solvents inside a shop or garage, or if you are contemplating spray-painting, you should consider a respirator rated for organic vapors. These are not very expensive, and they can protect your lungs from lacquer thinners, acetone, enamel reducers and paint thinners. Keep in mind, however, that they won’t protect you from catalyzed paint vapors. Read the labels and instructions that come with the respirator.
Working under the vehicle
If you need to work underneath your vehicle or to remove the wheels to access suspension parts, do not perform this work using the vehicle’s jack. A jack’s lifting mechanism can slip or, in the case of hydraulic units, leak, causing the vehicle to lower unexpectedly.
Car ramps or jack stands are designed to hold up the vehicle and to keep it stable while performing repairs. You can still use the car jack as a backup to the ramps or jack stands – it is always a good idea to take a “belts and suspenders” approach. Just leave the car jack in contact with the lift point while the vehicle’s weight is on the ramps or stands. Also, as added protection, use wheel chucks to help restrict movement.
If you need to clean oil or grime off parts, do not use gasoline. Kerosene or mineral spirits used with rubber gloves and goggles will minimize exposure of your skin and eyes to chemicals. And don’t even think about smoking while performing this or any automotive project that involves volatile chemicals or flammable materials. Rubber gloves and goggles won’t protect you from burning solvent.
Remember that DIY car safety continues even after the job is done. Properly dispose of oil, oily materials or oily rags, and paper towels. Be good to the environment and guard against fire in your shop.
These are just a few examples of where “safe” trumps “sorry.” Remember that nothing takes away from the satisfaction of completing a vehicle repair like bruised knuckles or a scratched cornea. If you think about safety before you even begin, your DIY project will most likely have a happy ending.