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Safety first...

There are several ways in which you can be injured and even killed when working on your vehicle, however all of these can be avoided with some care and common sense.  Forewarned is forearmed.  Just by being aware of these dangers and being prepared for them, you can ensure that they never harm you.

Avoid the killer blow of a falling bonnet…

If your vehicle’s bonnet is the type that needs a bonnet strut to hold it up, always check that the strut is holding it up securely before leaning into the engine bay underneath the bonnet.  It sounds trivial but if the bonnet falls on you, who knows the extent of the injuries it could cause?  The bonnets on some of the older cars are heavy enough that they could quite possibly kill a person if they free-fell.  Having said that, a lot of vehicles have bonnets that are designed in such a way that there’s no way they can fall and they don’t even need a strut to hold them up.  It’s just a matter of being aware of what type of bonnet you have.

Avoid being blown up…

It is very important to be aware of the risks of explosion associated with motor vehicles.  These risks come from the fuel which is highly flammable (in its liquid form and as fuel vapour) and from the hydrogen gas produced by the battery which is also highly flammable.  When working on the vehicle or even simply having the bonnet open, it’s very important to eliminate all sources of ignition such as smoking a cigarette near the vehicle, lighting a match near the vehicle or creating an electrical spark near the vehicle.  Other sources of ignition to avoid are the pilot light on a water heater if there is one nearby, as well as bare light bulbs which can get very hot.

When working on the fuel system, if your vehicle has electronic fuel injection, relieve the pressure in the fuel lines before disconnecting any fuel system component (such as a fuel line) by following the procedure in the workshop manual for your particular vehicle.  This normally involves removing the fuse associated with the electronic fuel injection system and cranking the engine over several times.  By relieving the pressure in the fuel lines in this way, you can avoid fuel spraying out when you disconnect a fuel system component and thereby minimise the risk of the fuel igniting.  Make sure that the engine, transmission and exhaust of the vehicle are completely cool before disconnecting any fuel lines.  Failure to observe this precaution could see the fuel ignite after coming into contact with the hot metal of any of these components.

It’s also important to disconnect the battery prior to removing any fuel system components, to eliminate the risk of a spark from the electrical system igniting the fuel or fuel vapour, as well as avoiding short-circuiting the battery by accidentally connecting its terminals with a metal tool like a spanner.  This will most likely cause a spark that could ignite any fuel or fuel vapour near the battery from the fuel system being worked on.  This same principle of avoiding an accidental short circuit also applies to any other electrical circuit that is live, such as before the battery is disconnected.

Avoid being electrocuted…

NEVER touch any part of the ignition system on a vehicle (e.g. the spark plug leads) when the vehicle is running in order to avoid receiving a serious electric shock.  Where the vehicle has electronic ignition (which is generally the case on vehicles with electronic fuel injection as opposed to vehicles with fuel delivery via carburettors), this kind of electric shock could actually result in death due to the higher voltages involved.

When working on the electrical system, always disconnect the battery in order to eliminate the risk of electric shock.

Avoid savage burns from the cooling system…

NEVER remove the cap off of the radiator or the coolant reservoir directly after the vehicle has been driven and the engine and radiator are hot.  As the temperature in the engine and radiator increases, the pressure in the cooling system also increases greatly.  Removing the cap from the radiator when the cooling system is hot will see burning, hot coolant and steam immediately erupt violently from the radiator opening and burn you ferociously.  Removing the cap from the plastic coolant reservoir when the cooling system is hot could see the same thing happen.

Before taking the cap off of the radiator or the coolant reservoir, wait at least a couple of hours for the cooling system to cool down.  (Leaving the bonnet open will help to speed up this cooling process.)  After a couple of hours, since the cooling system will still be somewhat warm, use a thick rag doubled-over a couple of times in your hand to grip the radiator cap so as to protect your hand from being scalded.  It’s a good idea to also wear thick, chemical-resistant gloves as well and to even wear protective goggles to protect your eyes.

Loosen the radiator cap very slowly to relieve any pressure remaining in the radiator.  This takes longer than you’d expect.  When you’re sure that the pressure in the radiator has been fully relieved and equalised with the outside air pressure, then it’s safe to remove the radiator cap completely.

Failure to observe the above warnings will more than likely result in serious injury, including possible blindness if the boiling coolant leaps up into your eyes when the radiator cap is removed while the radiator is still hot.  Boiling coolant is an extremely serious safety issue.  Please be extremely careful and avoid injury.

Because of the risk of serious injury from burning hot coolant, the best time to check the coolant level is in the morning when the vehicle has not been driven since the previous day and the cooling system, including the radiator, is stone cold.

Protect your hands from other scalding automotive fluids…

When draining engine oil, automatic transmission fluid, manual transmission fluid or differential fluid after the vehicle has been running and the fluid is still hot, it’s best to wear thick, chemical-resistant gloves (preferably which extend down past your wrists) so as to prevent your hands from being scalded or burnt by the hot fluid.  Thick, chemical-resistant gloves are available from your local hardware store.

Protect your hands from cuts and bruises…

When undoing a stubborn bolt or nut in a confined space with a spanner or socket-wrench, it’s a good idea to wear tough pig-skin gloves or similar to protect your hand from being cut open on surrounding components if the bolt or nut suddenly loosens or if your hand slips.  It’s much better to spend less than twenty seconds putting on a glove than have to interrupt your work by spending ten minutes attending to a cut or bruise to your hand under this common scenario.  Having battered or bruised hands from working on a vehicle is not desirable at all.  Your hands are precious!  They’re worth protecting.

Protect your hands from grease and grime…

Before working on your vehicle, it’s a good idea to apply barrier cream liberally to your hands and wrists.  Barrier cream forms a protective barrier by blocking the pores of your skin so as to minimise the absorption of harmful chemicals, grease and grime into your hands.  This makes them much easier to clean afterwards.  If you use barrier cream, which is available in economical 500 gram (18 oz.) containers from your local pharmacist, you’ll find that grease and grime on your hands cleans up very easily with normal soap afterwards so that no in-grained stains remain on your hands.  Barrier cream also protects your hands from becoming dry and cracked by blocking their exposure to the hydrocarbon chemicals associated with automotive work that cause this, such as engine oil.

Protect your skin from automotive fluids…

It’s best not to let automotive fluids such as engine oil, coolant, fuel, automatic transmission fluid, manual transmission fluid, differential fluid or brake fluid sit on any part of your skin during the course of working on your vehicle.  It’s best to wash them off with soap and water because most of these automotive fluids are carcinogenic (i.e. cancer-causing) or otherwise hazardous to your health.

Your skin is porous and will allow these fluids to leech into your body if you don’t wash them off with soap and water or wear gloves to protect your hands.  It’s also best to re-apply barrier cream to your hands after washing them with soap and water if you’re going to continue working on your vehicle.

Contact with automotive fluids is best avoided altogether by wearing thick, chemical-resistant gloves, such as when draining these fluids.  When you need to retain the feel of your fingers, such as when bleeding the braking system, thinner, latex gloves are more suitable.  These are available in different sizes inexpensively from your local supermarket.

Don’t run your vehicle’s engine in a confined space…

As is well-known, the internal combustion engine in motor vehicles produces carbon monoxide via its exhaust when it’s in operation.  Also well-known is the fact that you can die of asphyxiation from breathing in carbon monoxide in an enclosed space.  For this reason, it’s important not to run your vehicle’s engine in a confined space such as a closed garage when you’re working on it or at any other time.  Be sure to keep the garage door open so that the exhaust fumes can quickly dissipate rather than becoming more concentrated.

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Copyright 2016 Andrew Mackinnon.  All rights reserved.