Many Experimental aircraft builders have a background in manufacturing or construction where things like Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are part of the daily routine, but may others may have only a passing knowledge of such terms. Some builders have been well trained in the necessary safety precautions that should be a part of all time spent in the workshop, but others may have picked up their knowledge of building without the benefit of such training. With or without such knowledge, most builders survive the building process with nothing more serious than a few cuts and scrapes, but some do get hurt more seriously, and many others avoid serious injury through not much more than dumb luck. Best practices do not consist of relying on good luck, but rather in integrating safety into everything you do. With that in mind let’s take a look at how you can avoid workshop injuries without taking the fun out of the building process.
When cutting or sanding fiberglass be sure to wear eye protection and a dust mask to keep particles out of your eyes and lungs.
A face mask gives extra protection from flying objects when grinding or using a Scotch-Brite wheel such as is being done here. Gloves also offer needed protection from the sharp edges of freshly cut sheet metal. After deburring this is much less of a concern.
The most common injuries during aircraft building are probably minor, and sometimes not so minor, eye injuries. The good news is that a fairly inexpensive pair of safety glasses will prevent just about 100% of such injuries. Have a few pairs scattered around the shop in areas where they are likely to be needed, such as near grinders, saws, drill presses, mills, and lathes, if you are lucky enough to have them, and other similar places. For grinding operations and cleaning the belly of your airplane, a full face shield may work better than glasses. A good practice is to place these items in your shop in such a way that you have to move them to use the equipment. That way it is easy to remember. Anything that produces chips, shavings, or dust should only be used with eye protection. Few things are more important to a pilot than sight, so taking some care with your eyes should be second nature.
Always wear ear protection when riveting, even if you are only driving a few rivets. The loud noise this produces will do permanent damage to unprotected ears. Here the author rivets the top skins onto his Glasair Sportsman.
Hearing loss is a funny thing. You never see it as it’s happening, but it builds up over time into an irreversible loss of an important sense. Many pilots have waged a relentless assault on their hearing over a lifetime, never suspecting that by the time they get into their 60s they will no longer be able to pick an important conversation out of a noisy background or catch an important call from ATC. Needless to say hearing loss can be a real problem for pilots, so a few simple steps to minimize the damage are in order.
Wear ear plugs or ear muffs when you do noisy things. Pounding rivets is probably the number one hearing killer for airplane builders. The sound of riveting is loud and sharp and happens thousands of times with the typical metal airplane. You would think that it would be uncomfortable enough that nothing would need to be said about hearing protection, but it is amazingly common to see builders riveting without hearing protection. Don’t be one of them. Sawing and grinding can also produce damaging sound levels, and of course, flying itself is pretty noisy if you don’t have a good headset. Just remember, if it sounds loud you need hearing protection. If you aren’t sure, go ahead and use it anyway.
Remember, hearing loss is cumulative over your lifetime and irreversible. You have probably already used up any “spare” hearing capacity you may have had by listening to too-loud music when you were younger, shooting guns without earplugs, or riding around on your Harley with no muffler. Don’t waste what you have left.
Nalgene gloves protect hands from irritation by chemicals, oils, and grease. They also make cleanup much easier. Latex gloves also work, but more people seem to be allergic to latex than Nalgene.
Gloves are pretty nice to have around the shop to minimize cuts, scrapes, and burns or harmful exposure to various chemicals. Of course, different tasks will call for different kinds of gloves.
When working with paints, solvents, or resins, nitrile or latex gloves are in order. Welding and cutting steel calls for leather gloves, long sleeves, and pants that cover the tops of your shoes. Cutting sheet metal, especially stainless steel, begs for leather gloves, too, or at least some sturdy cotton gloves. Burrs and sharp edges of sheet metal can cause some pretty nasty cuts. Leather or cotton shop gloves also come in handy when taking spark plugs out of a hot engine.
Gloves are pretty inexpensive and make personal cleanup so much easier. Why would someone want to get their hands covered with paint or fiberglass resin and then subject them to harsh solvents such as lacquer thinner or acetone to get them cleaned up when they didn’t have to?
Chemicals and Paints
Many builders are quite casual about exposure to chemicals and paints, sometimes with disastrous results. Smart builders will get the MSDS for the chemicals and paints that they use in their shop and read them. These documents, which are readily available online, outline the dangers of exposure to that particular chemical, the protective equipment required for safe use, and basic first aid treatment for any exposure. You should print out the MSDS for any chemicals and paints that you use and place them in a notebook in your shop. If you have an accident, the first thing the paramedics will want to know is what the chemical was and if you have the MSDS. With that information they can immediately begin to administer the proper first aid treatment. Without it they are just wasting time that could mean the difference between a minor and a major injury.
If proper first aid treatment is important, proper prevention is even more important. Some chemicals can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system. First aid after the fact won’t do you much good if your brain is already fried. Many modern paints such as urethanes contain some very nasty chemicals, and many common solvents such as methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) can also be quite harmful. Even innocuous things like brake cleaner can produce horrendous injuries if improperly used. Did you know that TIG welding a part that has brake cleaner on it can cause quick and permanent brain damage? Read the MSDSs and do what they say.
Some paints require extensive personal protection. This urethane paint requires the use of a complete protective suit and fresh air pumped in from outside the paint booth. The warnings on paint products should not be taken lightly. Some of these products are very dangerous if not properly handled.
Gloves, eye protection, and good ventilation, combined with sparing use, will deal with most toxic fume concerns, but for any prolonged use a respirator may be required. And for some chemicals and paints, nothing short of a fresh air supply and a complete body suit will really keep you safe. In tightly closed shops, such as you will find in many parts of the country in the winter, you really need to think about ventilation and what things you are willing to use under such conditions, but even in sunny Southern California with the shop door wide open, you should resist the urge to cut corners with safety when using chemicals and paints.
In all cases, use the minimum possible quantity of chemicals and paints to reduce toxic waste. Dispose of contaminated or unused chemicals properly.
Amateur aircraft builders typically employ one of two different types of welding on their projects, oxy-acetylene (gas) or tungsten-inert-gas (TIG). Each has its own safety requirements. Gas welding requires proper goggles and leather gloves at a minimum. Those who have welded without gloves will soon enough get a lesson they will not forget in the form of a nasty burn as they inadvertently touch some hot metal. The punishment is built into the “crime.” Welding without protective goggles is also pretty dumb and can lead to damage to your retinas if prolonged.
The intense light produced by TIG welding requires added protection for the builder. A full-face hood with a darker lens is a must, as are long sleeves, pants, and gloves that leave no gap between the end of the sleeve and the beginning of the glove. Any exposed skin can become quickly “sunburned” by the intense light. A quick bit of welding will do little harm, but hours of exposure can cause severe burns. Lastly, be sure a good fire extinguisher is readily available whenever you weld. Burning down your shop with your project in it would be very disappointing.
Secure work while using a drill or drill press to be sure that it does not take off and injure someone while being drilled. This especially applies when drilling large holes or using a hole saw in lightweight parts.
Lifting and Jacking
Aircraft projects start off with small parts that are easy to lift and move around, but as projects progress they become larger and heavier. Lifting and moving them then becomes a safety concern. The engine presents the heaviest object in most cases. With most engines weighing well in excess of 200 pounds, some kind of a hoist will be needed to place them in the aircraft. Sometimes a come-along hung from a beam in the garage will do the job, but if there is any doubt, have an engineer check it out for you. If a support beam fails, you will not only damage the engine, but you may do some serious damage to your garage or shop, which also might include some serious damage to yourself. When in doubt find another way. Renting or buying an engine hoist is usually the best way to deal with this. An engine hoist can usually be rented for $40-50 per day, or Harbor Freight Tools often has them on sale for $100. Save your back, save your engine, and save your garage.
Use an engine hoist to install your engine. This allows you to move the engine to the plane instead of trying to move the plane to the engine, which is much less safe. Note that no load should ever be left unattended on any hydraulic hoist or jack.
There are two important rules to follow when using any kind of hydraulic jack or hoist. One, do not exceed the capacity of the jack or hoist, and two, do not leave a load hanging on a hydraulic lift of any kind without a secondary means of support. Hydraulic lifts leak down or sometimes just fail. Too many people have been injured when loads came down on them to take this lightly.
A safety-minded mechanic places wooden blocks under the axle of a Cub while he is servicing the wheel bearings. Never depend on a hydraulic jack or hoist to hold its load without secondary support, especially while unattended. Too many people have been injured or killed while working under equipment that was only supported by a hydraulic jack.
Being Safe is Fun
Everyone rolls their eyes when they hear someone say that safety is fun, but it is surely more fun than not being safe. Even minor injuries are not much fun, but there is always the potential for a serious injury. The object is to end up with an aircraft you can fly and be proud of, not to end up with a “red badge of stupidity” because you hurt yourself for lack of some basic attention to safety. It is way more fun to be in one piece with all your parts in good working order. Best practices call for no less.
It is also safer to always work with a buddy, just in case you need some extra muscle to safely move something. However, and more importantly, a buddy can get help if an accident should happen. This is especially true if you are working in a hangar with poor or no cell phone reception. If you must work alone in a hangar with no phone, make an emergency plan with someone to check up on you, or at least expect to see you somewhere at a certain time. You may never need such a contingency plan, but if you do, it will be too late to start worrying about it after you are badly hurt.
Best practices are always safe practices. Be safe and enjoy building your plane.