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Don’t do dangerous stuff: a reminder to be safe in the shop

by | May 3, 2022

Dear Past Me,

Stop doing dangerous stuff in the shop.

Future You

That was basically all I wanted to write for this piece. I am of an age where I am still young enough to do dangerous things, and I am also old enough to realize how many are stupid. I was raised in times and places where it was considered a mark of pride to get the job done, no matter the risk to your own body. That, friends, is bunk. Nobody is looking out for you except you. Take care of yourself in the shop. I offer a few tips, in no particular order. Note I am not on a high horse here—these are the things I still catch myself doing wrong; take these as a friendly suggestions from a fellow sinner.

Wear eye pro

Eyes are soft and squishy. I’d tell you one of the jillion stories whereby I almost took out an eye, but you have your own, I’m sure. Fun fact: if you have to have an MRI, the nice people at the hospital tell me all those chips and slag from the welder will actually be ripped out. A few years ago, I started buying tinted safety goggles. (Orange and yellow don’t seem to affect my vision very much.) Because they double as sunglasses, I just leave them on the bill of my cap all the time and I always have a set handy.

Be careful around the torches

I see a lot of folks who are kind of cavalier around the ‘cety torch. Oh, I like the blue-tip wrench as well as the next person, but those things are dangerous in a multitude of ways. There are a few common safety flubs I see in many shops that make me wince.

  • Using a cigarette lighter to fire up the torch: Use a flint and striker, please, so your lighter doesn’t ‘splode. I know, I know. One of you has been doing this for a thousand years. It’s fine until the day it’s not.
  • Gunning the valves wide open: Open the valves on the bottles slowly. 2000+ psi is a lot to hit the back of the regulator all at once.
  • Unchained bottles: A gas bottle with no cap that falls over is potentially a shop rocket. Chain them to the cart or the wall so they can’t fall down.

Wear ear pro

Boy, I neglected this rule for a long time. And now I pay for it—my hearing sucks. My ears start to hurt any more, which never used to happen. When I’m running the chop saw, grinder, or whizzy wheel especially any more, I wear plugs and ‘phones. At the same time. It only takes a second to gear up, and as someone who now can’t hear so well, I recommend it. Think of all the sweet Foghat drum solos you might miss if you lose your hearing.

Shop safety sign

This would seem obvious to most folks, but some of us seem to need constant reminding. Illustration by Josh Seasholtz.

Position yourself

We all have busted a knuckle—no big deal. But dental work courtesy of a fastener that let go is significantly more detrimental. Make life easy on your body. About to reef on a breaker bar? Get your face out of the way of your hands. Laying down a weld in a weird position? Make sure you’re not gonna get a face full of slag. Lifting something heavy? Get comfy and maximize your leverage. Even with something like shoveling snow, some stretching and thought about your poor achin’ back might prevent… a poor achin’ back.

Be mindful of the machinery

This one is for the fabricators out there. Lock down the work piece in the drill press. Yes, you just need to put a hole in something real fast to keep going with a project, until the workpiece is ripped from your hands and slams into a car door. And if you have a metal lathe in the shop, for the love of Pete, please take the key out of the chuck!

Skip the chemicals

The doc told me I had some alarming numbers having to do with my kidneys years ago. Turns out brake cleaner is pretty bad for your insides. Wear gloves and skip the chemicals where you can. Turns out soap, water, and friction have been pretty adequate for most of my brake cleanups as of late.

Be careful under the car

It’s easy to forget that the lift is dangerous. When I was young, an older mechanic walked by my bay and told me a truck was racked wrong. He started rocking it and it wobbled corner-to-corner. I told him they all did that because the lift was crooked and that I had asked for it to be repaired, and was told it would be three months. He told me to come outside and smoke a butt, and while we were doing that suggested I make a stink, since that was not safe. Months earlier, I’d asked for it to be repaired, but my request fell on deaf ears. I walked back inside and told the shop foreman I’d no longer be working in that bay until it was repaired.

The lift was fixed later that day. I still think about that old mechanic now and again. He was a smart feller. Remember, you’re standing underneath an 8,000 pound truck six feet in the air.

Check (or get!) a fire extinguisher

At bare minimum, know where the shop one lives. Make sure it’s not expired for extra credit. For real go-getters, throw one on your tool cart. I keep one on the torch cart, and I regularly stage it when using the torch or welder or if I’ll be running a motor with the air cleaner off—one good backfire from the carb mouth is all it takes sometimes. And I know several of you have lit the penetrating oil on fire when attempting to free a rusty fastener. The last time I did this was on a ’40s-era motorcycle fork worth a couple grand, making the stupid error that much worse.

Most of you don’t need the sermon because you’re smarter than me and have a better sense of self-preservation. Succeed where I have failed. Take care of yourself out there.



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