Play It Safe
You’ve seen it before. You’re flipping through the channels, wondering how with 82 stations there can be “nothing on.” You pause on a montage of home videos, including one of a middle-aged man working on a small engine with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. You know what’s going to happen next — POOF, no eyebrows. Everybody laughs, and the man’s neighbor goes home with a sizable amount of cash in return for his good timing with the camcorder.

Although home-video television shows have made some accidents a laughing matter, there are many more that don’t end quite so humorously. Either way, we don’t want to see you as the next eyebrow-less TV star with a rich neighbor or co-worker.

From moving parts to flammable fluids, engines contain a number of materials that can harm a mechanic who’s not cautious. Some safety items may seem simple, but sometimes a little reminder can go a long way when the focus is on the job and safety measures are unintentionally neglected. Keep the following tips in mind to help prevent any accidents or injuries that could occur.


Keep the Eyebrows

Some safety measures are generally common sense. As we’ve learned, it’s best not to light up a stogie while working on anything that involves fuel. Before cleaning the fuel cup or replacing a fuel hose, ensure the area is free of flames, sparks and anything that may be prone to igniting. Follow the same guideline when draining fuel from the engine before storing the equipment.


The vapor from one cup of gasoline, when mixed with air in the right proportion, will have the explosive power of about five sticks of dynamite. That’s nothing to mess with. Clean up any fuel spills immediately, and discard the rags in a closed metal container. Carburetor cleaner and engine degreasers, along with the vapors, also are flammable and should be treated the same. 


Storing fuel only in approved containers will prevent vapors and flames, as well. Blue kerosene cans are constructed differently than red gasoline cans and should never be substituted, nor should other storage containers, such as glass or plastic bottles. No matter what the container, never store fuel near an area with an open flame, such as an oil heater.


Some may disassociate the air filter with fuel — air is harmless, of course — but it’s important to use care when working on an air cleaner since the foam filter, when present, may be saturated with fuel or kerosene.


The heat produced by engines also makes them prone to spark, which can ignite combustible materials in the area, such as grass and dry leaves. Wood and grass ignite at around 400 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, while the core of an internal combustion engine can reach 4,500 degrees and the exhaust pipe can reach 1,000 degrees.


Whenever possible, avoid repairing or testing an engine in an area with materials that may ignite. Ensure fire extinguishers are present, charged and easily accessible so that any fire that may occur can be quickly extinguished.


Obviously, anything hot enough to spark will cause serious burns when coming in contact with skin. Always allow an engine to cool before doing any maintenance checks or repair work, and change oil when an engine is warm, but not hot. Wait until the engine has cooled completely, however, before refueling since any gas spilled on a hot cylinder could start a fire, as well.


Don’t Breathe It

A conscious decision about where the engine will be repaired or tested won’t just avoid fire, but also the deadly affects of carbon monoxide. The toxic fumes cannot be seen, tasted or smelled. At lower exposure levels, carbon monoxide’s effects are similar to flu symptoms, including dizziness, headaches, disorientation, visual disturbances, nausea and fatigue. The effects vary considerably from one individual to the next, however, since age and overall health can impact the degree to which a person’s body responds to carbon monoxide, as do the levels and lengths of exposure and the breathing rate due to the workload. In any case, don’t rely on these “symptoms” to serve as warning signals since hazardous carbon monoxide levels can develop within a matter of minutes, and death can occur quickly, before signs can ever be felt or noticed.


When running any engine, the repeated advice is to use it in a “well-ventilated location.” That’s a pretty ambiguous term, yet it seems to be the only guidance out there. So, will opening the door and a couple of windows suffice as “well-ventilated?”


Operating fans or opening doors and windows will never guarantee safety. A 1997 study published in the American Industrial Hygiene Association journal found that ventilation rates of 5,000 cubic feet per minute were needed to prevent the carbon monoxide level in a room from reaching the 200 ppm limit for exposure. So, what exactly does that mean? The National Instituted for Occupational Safety and Health found that operating a 5.5-horsepower, gasoline-powered pressure washer in an 8,360-square-foot double-car garage without ventilation would take five minutes to reach 200 ppm. Within 12 minutes, levels hit 1,200 ppm, and it was up to 1,500 ppm four minutes later. Levels continued to increase from there. When two double-car garage doors were open along with a window and the vent unsealed, it still took only three minutes to reach 200 ppm, however the levels peaked at 658 ppm within 12 minutes.


While the study indicates that hazardous levels of carbon monoxide can accumulate even in ventilated areas, the situation is considerably less dangerous than in an enclosed room. Mechanics should always try to move equipment outside when testing the machine. Keep it away from a building’s air intakes, which can pull exhaust inside.


Prevent Pain

While likely less harmful than carbon monoxide poisoning, physical injuries also can occur when working on engines.


Hot engine oil obviously will burn skin, but contact with engine oil at any temperature should be avoided. Initial contact with skin will be mildly irritating, but repeated or prolonged contact can cause dermatitis, an uncomfortable skin inflammation. “Oil acne” also is possible, and can bring on a secondary infection. Furthermore, used engine oil is carcinogenic. Although research continues, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has found through experiments that used oil will produce skin tumors on animals. There’s just no reason to take any chances. Avoid skin-to-oil contact whenever possible. When oil does come into contact with skin, wipe it off with a cloth and then wash thoroughly with plenty of soap and water. Used oil also should be washed out of clothing before wearing it again, but leather gloves and shoes should be discarded when saturated.


Parts of the engine also can cause injury when not handled properly. Carelessly pulling a recoil starter cord, or doing so while distracted, can cause the cord to retract more forcefully than expected. The reversed force can pull an operator’s arm forward toward the engine, resulting in bruises, sprains or fractures.


Also exercise care with the flywheel. While at times it might be tempting to use a hammer to try to encourage a non-operational engine into starting, never strike a flywheel with an object. Always use the proper tool — a flywheel puller — for removing the wheel, never a crowbar or other device. Additionally, using too much torque when tightening the flywheel nut or bolt can cause a cast iron flywheel’s keyway to crack. Cracks and damage will only worsen with use. At some point, the flywheel may actually break during operation, which could cause a shrapnel-like effect.


The flywheel is just one of the many moving parts in an engine. Be aware of what you are wearing when working on an engine, since loose fitting clothing can get wrapped in parts, as can jewelry and long hair that’s not pulled back or under a cap. Additionally, you should always wear eye protection when working with moving parts. Goggles also will prevent fluids from splashing into the eyes. If gas or oil does get into the eyes, flush them with clean, low-pressure water for at least 15 minutes. If pain or redness continues afterward, seek medical attention.


Use extra caution when cleaning a spark plug or testing for a fouled plug. Begin by disconnecting the spark plug wire, moving the plug away from the spark plug hole and wiping out any spilled fuel.


Don’t test for a spark with the spark plug removed, and only use an approved spark plug tester. Never hold a spark plug by hand while pulling the recoil starter. Ground it first. If there is an electric start button, disconnect the battery at the negative terminal before beginning any test. While the charge from a spark plug won’t kill you, it will likely hurt. And, it’ll probably be pretty embarrassing when someone sees you reeling back from the engine with a shocked look on your face.


If there is ever any question of what may or may not be safe, check the owner/operator manual; many are posted on manufacturers’ Web sites. Liability concerns push manufacturers to be precise and in-depth in their manuals, especially when it comes to safety issues. For this reason, you should expect to find precise directions and explicit warnings for anything that may be of concern. Doing the most to ensure operator safety with any product is in the best interest of the manufacturer as well as the user.


Safety should always come first when working on engine-operated equipment. Nothing is worth risking life or limb — or even eyebrows — over. If you’re unsure if something is safe, don’t do it. It’s really that simple.  

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