Auto Repair: Basic Safety

car safety

The first time I tuned my car, I was sure that if I made the smallest mistake, the car would explode when I started it. This seems to be a common delusion, but it just isn't so. If you make a mistake, in most cases all you'll get is silence (which can be just as disconcerting, but not lethal after all). This isn't to say that working on a vehicle is free from danger. Before you do any work, be sure to observe the following safety rules:

  • Don't smoke while you're working on your car -- for obvious reasons!
  • Never work on your vehicle unless the parking brake is on, the gearshift is in Park or Neutral, and the engine is shut off. If you have to run the engine to adjust something, turn it on and off yourself to avoid the risk that a friendly helper may misunderstand and turn the engine on while your hands are in the way.
  • Be sure that the parts of the engine you're working on are nice and cool so that you don't get burned. If you're doing a job that calls for a warm engine, be very careful.
  • Never jack a vehicle up unless the wheels are properly blocked. We'll go into more detail about this in the articles "How to Use a Jack Safely" and "How to Change a Tire."
  • Use insulated tools for electrical work.
  • Before using a wrench or ratchet on a part that's "stuck," make sure that if the part suddenly comes loose, your hand won't hit anything. To avoid the possibility of being injured because your hand slams into something, pull on wrenches rather than push them whenever possible.
  • Take off your tie, scarf, rings, long necklaces, and other jewelry. If they get caught on parts, they -- and you -- can be damaged.
  • Tie back long hair. If your hair accidentally gets caught in a moving fan or belt, you can literally be scalped.


  • If you're working with toxic chemicals, such as coolant, cleaners, and the like, keep them away from your mouth and eyes. Wash your hands thoroughly after using them, and either store them safely away from pets and children or dispose of them in a way that's safe for the environment.
  • Know that gasoline is extremely dangerous to have around. Not only is it toxic and flammable, but the vapor in an empty can is explosive enough to take out a city block. If you must keep a small amount of gasoline on hand for a lawn mower or chain saw, always store it in a ventilated gasoline can designed specifically for that purpose. Unless you're going far into the wilds, never carry a can of gasoline in or on your vehicle. (See "How to dispose of empty gasoline cans safely" below.)
  • Work in a well-ventilated area to avoid breathing in carbon monoxide if you have to run the engine, or breathing in toxic fumes from chemicals and gasoline. If possible, work outdoors in your driveway, your backyard, or a parking lot. If you must work in your garage, be sure to keep the garage door open and move the vehicle as close to the door as possible.
  • Use a work light in dark areas. If you don't already have one, Chapter 3 tells you what you need to know about buying one.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy.

So much for the scary stuff. Auto repair safety is all a matter of common sense, really.

Extra Tip: How to dispose of empty gasoline cans safely

Although gasoline simply burns, gasoline plus air forms an explosive vapor that can literally take out your entire neighborhood. For this reason, it's wise not to store or carry gasoline unless you're heading far away from any source of fuel (and in that unlikely event, use only a specialized, vented gas can). If you have an old gasoline can around, get rid of it, and do it in a way that won't pollute the environment: Fill the can with water, and, as soon as you can, take the can to a recycling center that handles toxic waste. If there's no center nearby, ask your local service station if they'll dispose of it for you.

Some people keep gasoline around to clean parts with, but this is extremely dangerous. Mechanic's solvent, available at gas stations and auto supply stores, works better and has been treated with a flame retardant to keep it from burning too freely.

Extra Tip 2: What the big guys taught me about busting things loose

If you try to remove a bolt or a spark plug and you can't budge it, don't feel like a weakling. At first I thought that I had trouble because I was female, so I asked the biggest guys in my auto class for help because it would have been embarrassing if some little guy could do it. To my amazement, I found that often the big guys struggled, too! The difference was that they always prevailed. What I learned from them is that strength depends less on size or sex and more on the way in which we've been taught to focus our strength. People who are handy with tools usually have learned to pour their strength down their arms and into their hands, and focus it on the tool they're using. The guys also showed me that the longer the handle, the more leverage you have. And from watching them struggle, I learned that the patience to persevere comes from having the confidence that eventually you will succeed. So now I approach hard-to-move objects with the proper tools, focus, and patience. It works!

From Auto Repair for Dummies, copyright © 2009 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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