Okay look, we don’t want to beat a dead horse, but it is better than beating a dead mechanic. Garage safety is paramount to anything else you will ever do. Losing a finger or an eye would be devastating, but losing your life because you didn’t follow protocol is the worst thing that can happen in your garage. These eight topics are the most important areas of safety that you can protect yourself against, please read and heed the advice. It can quite literally save your life.
Jacks and Jack Stands
Above and beyond everything else you read here, this is the absolute most important one – NEVER EVER work under a vehicle that is supported only by a jack, ever. Vehicle lift jacks come in all manner of types, from the old school bumper jacks (the most deadly of them all), factory-style hand-crank scissor lift jacks, hand-crank bottle jacks, hydraulic bottle jacks, and the safest style, which is the hydraulic pump floor jack. The thing is, every single one of these can fail in several different ways. Bumper jacks are absolutely useless in the garage. DO NOT EVER use one to support your vehicle. These jacks are called “widowmakers” for a reason, they kill people. They fail in a hundred different ways, and are only good for off-road vehicles. Do not use them.
Factory hand crank scissor jacks are designed for emergency use on the side of a road. They are not very powerful, hard to use, as well as prone to twisting and bending that leads to a fallen car at best, and a dead you at worst. In most cases, it is best to leave these in their holder in the fender of your car and keep an emergency hydraulic jack in your trunk instead.
Hydraulic jacks are the safest type of vehicle lifting devices, but even they fail. Typical failures are user error, not the device itself, though that certainly happens too. The key to lifting a vehicle is properly setting up the jack at the lift point, and making sure the vehicle cannot roll. Even on a flat surface, a vehicle can roll when lifted. Next up are the key points to lifting a vehicle safely.
Set the jack lift pad at a proper lift point. This means under the suspension where the jack cannot slip off, under the frame, or at the factory-noted lifting point on the pinch weld. NEVER lift a vehicle by the sheet metal (pinch welds are sheet metal, but your car will have a reinforced location). When in doubt refer to your vehicle owner’s manual for the correct lift points.
If you are not working on a solid surface like concrete or asphalt, then extra care must be take to ensure the vehicle does not sink. You are putting a large amount of weight on a small footprint. A large solid board (not particle board or MDF) can help keep the jack from sinking. This is still very risky so if at all possible move the vehicle to a concrete pad. Also not that on hot days a narrow jack can actually sink into hot asphalt.
Don’t think that lifting correctly stops at your vehicle. It also means to lift correctly with your body when working on that vehicle. Car parts can be heavier than they look. Ask a buddy to help lift that transmission into the truck bed or put that cylinder head on the engine block. Or better yet use a shop hoist. If you haven’t already heard it a million times lift with your legs, not your back. There are all kinds of specialty tools designed to help move things around the shop or put them in place, so ask your local NAPA Auto Parts store about taking a load off your back.
There are several ways to ensure that the vehicle does not roll while your are working on it. Start by setting the emergency brake and putting the vehicle in “Park” (or in first gear for manual transmission vehicles). Sometimes you can’t set the e-brake or put it in park because you need to rotate the wheels. In this case use wheel chocks in front and behind at least two wheels to ensure that the vehicle cannot roll. You don’t want to unbolt the driveshaft only to realize your truck is rolling away because it was only in “Park” with no wheel chocks or emergency brake set.
Support the Vehicle
NEVER EVER work under a car that supported only by a jack. No excuses. If the jack fails, the car falls. Always use jack stands under the vehicle in at least two places. The stands should support the vehicle’s weight, not the jack, so let the jack down so that the vehicle is resting on the stand. The jack can remain in position, as a third support just in case. It is always better to be over cautious than take a risk. One great tip is if you are removing the wheels for any reason, slide them under the vehicle. This not only gets the tire/wheel out of the way while you work, but it also gives yet another layer of protection if the vehicle falls.
In general whenever possible don’t put your body or limbs under the car. If you are just changing a tire or doing a brake job, there is no reason for your legs to be under the vehicle. One bad move and your life could be changed forever so do not take the risk. (Author’s note: I have personally had a vehicle roll off a jack while my Dad and I were doing a brake job about 20 years ago. The next day I went out and bought him a new floor jack and set of stands. A couple of years later, a man in the same neighborhood had a car fall on him because he his jack failed. Please take this very seriously.)
There are many types of gloves available for garage work, from basic abrasion protection to welding and high-impact protection, so you have to make some choices as to what you want to keep on hand (pun intended). There are three basic gloves everyone should have in their garage: latex/rubber, general abrasion protection, and welding.
Rubber gloves are for chemical protection. These are useful for protecting your hands from grease and chemicals. Often they are used just to make clean up easier, but when working with nasty chemicals like harsh cleaners, they can save your skin.
General use gloves such as the basic Mechanix Wear gloves give your better grip on slippery parts like sheet metal, and provide adequate protection from cuts and scrapes. The thicker versions of these gloves step up the impact and abrasion protection without limiting the mobility. These are very useful for all manner of mechanic and fabrication work and are highly recommended when working with grinders, sanders, and other cut/scrape tools and processes.
Make sure to inspect your gloves every so often for holes and tears. Gloves wear out and are cheap to replace, your hands are not.
Face and Eye Protection
Mom always told us that BB guns will put your eye out, but flying shrapnel from grinders and sanders are more likely to make that happen. Face shields and safety glasses are a must anytime you are working with high-speed cutters and sanders. Just Google “cut-off wheel accident” and you will likely run out and buy a face shield with a polycarbonate lens. They also keep nasty fluids out of your eyes when using spray cleaners or other liquids under pressure. Keep them on hand and use them. Nobody likes a face full of stitches and while the pirate life may sound good, lack of depth perception makes actual normal life more difficult.
Huh? What did you say? Sure, the jokes about not hearing are hilarious for about two seconds, but a lifetime of muted words or constant ringing is not even a little funny. It takes just 85 decibels of sound at long exposure to begin to cause hearing damage. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be able to still hear when you are old, nor is there anything “macho” about not wearing hearing protection.
The science is clear. The louder the sound, the shorter the duration it takes to cause permanent hearing damage. A normal conversation is about 60 decibels, where a busy traffic intersection is a roughly 85 decibels. A grinder is about 95 decibels, meaning that 30 minutes of exposure can cause real hearing loss. For a list of decibel levels for common tools, check out the CDC’s link here.
Protecting your ear is easy. You just need a good set of ear muffs. You can use the foam type ear plugs, but they get nasty after just a few uses, which means buying them over and over again. Ear muffs, on the other hand hang on the wall until you need them, they basically last forever if they do not get physical damage. You need something in the neighborhood of 36 decibels reduction or better to be safe. For the big spenders, you can buy electronic ear muffs that allow you to hear like normal until loud sounds occur, and they shut off instantly. These are commonly used for hunting and shooting ranges, but they work just fine in the shop too.
Look, nobody ever thinks a fire is going to happen until it does. While you may not have a smoke detector in their garage, you absolutely need at least one full size fire extinguisher in your shop. The type of potential fire determines the type of extinguisher that you need. Because all three common types of fire are possible (A wood/paper, B chemical, and C electrical), you need an ABC extinguisher. Type D is for flammable metals, which is far less likely in most garages.
The small kitchen-size extinguishers are OK for a garage, but you are much better off with a large unit that is capable of putting out a bigger fire. Depending on the size of your garage/shop, you may want multiple units. In my shop, I have one on every wall, near the exits and near the major machinery. It is just good planning. If anyone works with you in the shop make sure they also know where all the fire extinguishers are located in case you aren’t nearby.
If you take safety seriously, then you should not have to worry about getting seriously injured in your shop. Take these precautions and ensure that you can enjoy your garage for many years to come. Over time they will just become habit. You can also help set a good example for other up and coming DIYers.
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A life-long gearhead, Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 4 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced.