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A Cautionary Tale: Safety First

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Of course, it had to happen while I was out of the shop running an errand. Frankly, if I had been there it never would have happened in the first place.

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One of the services my wheel repair shop provided was the welding of certain cracked wheels, if the weld could be done safely. We used a vendor for the welding itself, an expert at TIG welding aluminum alloys. Once the wheel was welded, we would carefully grind and smooth the bead of solder on the outside surface of the wheel to ensure an airtight contact with the tire, while leaving the bead on the other side for strength.

One day our welding vendor arrived at the shop to drop off some wheels and offered his opinion that we were doing the grinding wrong. To show my employees the true nature of their folly, he took up the grinder himself. The first thing he did was to remove the crescent-shaped shield from the grinder itself, apparently because it got in his way.

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The second thing he did was refuse the full-face shield that my employees were required to wear to protect from flying bits of solder, apparently because it obscured his vision.

The third thing he did was to shove the grinder wheel directly into the bead of solder as hard as he could, causing the wheel to stick in the solder and stop spinning. When you cause an angle grinder spinning at 8,000 rpms to come to an immediate halt, it turns out that all that energy has to go somewhere.

In this case, that energy turned into pieces of shattered grinder wheel flying everywhere at high speed, unencumbered by the grinder shield designed specifically for just such an occurrence and undeflected by the face shield that would have prevented one jagged piece of grinder wheel from cutting an impressive gash across our welder’s forehead.

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It’s all fun and games until somebody comes within half an inch of losing an eye.

Now, this would be a perfectly good cautionary tale if all it did were to reveal how we ended up getting a new welder.

But it gets even better. The welder sued us. That’s right, he claimed it was our fault for allowing him to improperly modify our equipment and use an angle grinder like a five-year-old. We won, of course, since we were able to prove that safety gear had been made available to him and he had refused it.

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But the lesson is this: Stuff happens. Not only that but stuff happens when you least expect it. That’s what safety gear is for, and that’s why it must be used.

Eye Protection
Most tire techs don’t wear eye protection all day, and would hate the very idea. Old style goggles are bulky, sweaty and look nerdy enough to chase away most potential dates. The newer wraparound-style glasses provide excellent basic protection, are much more comfortable for all-day use, and just look so much cooler.

And while most shops are not grinding solder off welded wheels every day, there are still a number of jobs where eye protection is a simple necessity. Drilling a stuck bolt or sawing off a lug stud always carries the danger of a tool breakage or a piece of metal flying off the work.
There’s also aerosol flat fix, which is highly acidic and corrosive. You’ll definitely want eye protection if you have to clean that dangerous, smelly crap out of somebody’s tire.

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Ear Protection
Shops are noisy places, and the decibel levels can be harmful to anyone’s hearing. Earmuff-style protectors are highly effective but can be clunky and uncomfortable to wear for long periods.

On the other hand, there are many styles of foam earplugs that can be bought cheaply in bulk and most are relatively comfortable. Earplugs will reduce decibel levels from power tools while still allowing you to hear the things you need to hear.

Gloves
Gloves are a constant necessity in any tire shop. Beyond simply protecting your hands from sharp edges and the constant presence of brake dust, a good set of gloves will incorporate impact protection and vibration-deadening palms.

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A good set of gloves will also be extremely tough, as few jobs I know of tear up gloves faster than tire work.

Many tire techs swear by Mechanix for gloves, and I don’t deny that they make extremely good ones. Mechanix’s M-Pact 2 gloves are top of the line for tire tech work.

But I personally prefer gloves by Duluth Trading. Duluth’s Impact Work Gloves are, in my opinion, even tougher, last longer, feature better dexterity and protection for the back of the hand, and most importantly, I find they are less expensive than Mechanix.

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Pants
Pants are perhaps not the first things you think of in terms of shop safety gear, but with the many sharp edges and flying metal that you may encounter, a really good set of work pants can be a good thing. I personally swear by another fantastic item by Duluth Trading – the Ultimate Fire Hose Work Pants. Now, these are pure 100% workpants, so they are sturdy, durable, abrasion-resistant and not something you wear on a date. Well, I wouldn’t.

I have heard from some dealers that they are having good returns on Red Kap’s Dura-Kap Industrial and Modern Fit Industrial pants. Dealers say they are great for shop work, and are good looking, which is ideal for the shop employee facing the customer.

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Boots
Drop just one wheel or a brake rotor on your foot and you’ll know how important good boots are for tire and service techs. Even an aired-up tire can hurt pretty bad when all 50 pounds of wheel and tire assembly comes down on your toes.

I always recommend steel toes for shop boots, but it’s equally important for them to have nonslip soles that are oil and chemical resistant. I also recommend high-top styles for full ankle protection.

Of equal importance is comfort. Tire techs spend long hours on their feet, so footwear need to provide both safety and wearability.

So the first part of the lesson is clear: Use safety gear, use safety gear and use still more safety gear. It cannot only save you from injury, it can make your shop time much more comfortable and effective.

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The last part of the lesson is also clear: Never, never, ever let anyone who is not an employee use your equipment. Not vendors and especially not customers – we all know that customers will ask. Don’t do it. Stuff will happen because stuff always happens.

You can do your best to make anything foolproof, but nature somehow always manages to build a better fool.

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