Keeping Kids & Pets Safe Around Shop Equipment

Many home garages or workshops are filled with power tools, hazardous chemicals, heavy boxes, and choking hazards like small screws and bolts.

In these parts of the home, families may not have taken the same precautions they did to secure chemicals in the kitchen or laundry room.

This guide contains basic safety information and actionable tips that homeowners who have garages or workshops can use to reduce injury risk for children or pets. 

Garage and shop safety requires more than just organization.

Childproofing Your Workshop/Garage

Childproofing requirements will change as your child ages. 

No infant or small child should ever be unsupervised in a garage that contains power tools. 

So when we talk about childproofing for kids this age, we're really talking about protecting for a worst-case scenario -- whoever is supposed to be watching the child gets distracted, and the child somehow gets into your workshop.

Common sources of injuries to children in garages and shops

Which tools could they get their hands on? Ideally, none of them. 

All tools should be locked in secure cabinets, or stored high enough that small children can't reach them.

Pet-Proofing Your Workshop/Garage

Pets can't operate power tools, but they are naturally curious about new tastes and smells. You should never let your pet loose in your garage, but you should prepare for the possibility that they somehow will manage to get in.

Chemicals are the biggest workshop danger for pets.

  • Keep chemicals in closed, pet-proof cabinets. 
  • Clean spills thoroughly, as soon as they happen.
  • Make sure rags and other hazardous workshop refuse don't make their way into the regular household trash bins.

While you are working, make sure the doors are closed so pets can't get in. If you have outdoor pets, lock them in the house before working with your garage door open. 

Securing Hazardous Materials Found in the Garage

If you have children or pets, hazardous materials should be locked away except when you are using them.

The traditional definition of a hazardous material is something that is combustible, flammable, or gives off dangerous fumes if spilled. But if you have children or pets, just about everything in your garage poses a potential hazard. 

Antifreeze isn't particularly dangerous if you use it properly. It would take a lot of heat for antifreeze to catch fire, and it can be safely cleaned with regular household materials if you spill it. But if you are a child or pet who thinks it's fruit juice, antifreeze could be deadly.

So every chemical in your garage or workshop should be stored in locked cabinets. Large, lockable storage cabinets can be found online or at hardware stores for approximately $250. 

Exceptionally hazardous materials, like gasoline, should be stored in a separate cabinet. Ideally this cabinet will not only be locked, but also stored in a high area where a child or pet can't get near it. 

Cleaning Chemical Spills 

All chemical spills should be cleaned promptly. Fumes from chemical spills can be extremely hazardous, especially in confined, poorly ventilated spaces. 

But you must be even more thorough when you have pets or small children. 

Here are some steps you should take if you spill a toxic chemical in your workshop or yard.

  1. Make sure children and pets are well away from the area, and supervised.
  2. Put on protective equipment, such as gloves and a mask. 
  3. Control the spill. If a bottle is leaking, or a tub has tipped over, do what you can to stop the flow of liquid. If you cannot control the spill, or are otherwise concerned for your safety, call 911.
  4. Contain the spill with absorbent materials such as kitty litter. Spread the absorbent materials over the entire area of the spill. Misting the area with water, or covering it with plastic sheeting, can help to control the spread and limit fumes. Under no circumstances should you allow the spill to reach storm drains/sewers, or any other body of water.
  5. Clean up the spill. Consult your local authorities for disposal information. Wearing protective equipment, scoop the absorbent material into a heavy-duty plastic bag, or if necessary, into a bag set inside a steel drum.
  6. Extremely hazardous chemicals may require additional surface cleaning with a bleach solution, to prevent danger for curious children or pets. Contact your local poison control center for advice.

Organizing Your Workshop

An organized workshop is a safer workshop. Proper organization ensures that you store materials properly, have necessary safety equipment in an accessible place, and are able to find emergency supplies when you need them.

Maintain a Clean Space

Clutter is an invitation to play for small children who love to put their hands (and mouths) on new objects. Small workshop items like screws, nuts, and the like, present a choking hazard to kids and pets. 

If you're storing these items in a place that children could reach or otherwise access, consider getting storage containers that can be tightly closed.

Hardware and craft cabinets with multiple small storage bins can be found for around $50 online or at hardware stores. Use these helpful items to provide a place for clutter that would otherwise be strewn about your work surface. 

Keep Tools Sorted and Locked 

The reason to have consistent storage places for all your tools is two-fold.

  1. You can glance to make sure you put a tool back.
  2. You can know for sure if a tool has gone missing.

Every workshop is different. A woodworker will have different tools and storage needs than a welder. Think about how you use your tools and create a storage system that makes sense. Tools that come in multiple sizes (like wrenches) are often arranged and stored by size. But you may find that you use a few sizes more frequently than others. In that case, maybe those wrenches should have a permanent, more accessible storage location. 

Customize storage for the way you like to work. There are plenty of different types of cabinets, drawers, pegs, shelves, and other tool storage systems to help.

Proper tool storage will give you peace of mind without having to worry about whether a tool has been misplaced. You can see at a glance that a tool is safe and sound where it should be. 

Closing up for the Day

When you finish working on your project for the day, clean and rearrange with the assumption that this is the night a child or pet will somehow wander in.

Before you leave your workshop:

  • Sweep up debris like metal shavings or sawdust that children or pets could ingest.
  • Clean and wipe down surfaces they could touch.
  • Place small items in the appropriate storage area. 
  • Check that all storage cabinets are closed and/or locked.

Access to Your Workshop

Good tools and equipment are always in demand, and can be a target for thieves. You also don't want kids of any age to be able to get into your workshop without your supervision.

So having some sort of security system for your workshop or garage is a good idea, and a simple lock and key will do the trick. Modern security systems will allow you to create a lock that's activated by passwords or fingerprints, and record every entry and exit through the door. 

Working Around Children

When you are working, you will be distracted, and your sight and hearing may be obscured by equipment. The hazards of some projects are a safety risk for any bystander, let alone a child.

Welding, for example, causes the release of fumes from metals that can be toxic without proper ventilation. The sparks, intense heat, and falling metal chips can cause severe burns. The bright light from the flame can even cause eye damage. 

A child won't know this -- they'll just see Daddy or Mommy doing something new. They may be able to get dangerously close to you before you notice.

Before starting on any heavy-duty project, make sure your child is being monitored -- or put a lock on your workshop or garage door to ensure they can't get in.

As your child ages, you may feel comfortable having them hang out with you or assist on projects. As their awareness and ability grows, you may be able to relax some of the safety measures you've taken.

Introducing Kids to Tool Safety

Your kids will be interested in what you're doing in your workshop. That interest can progress from merely watching to doing projects of their own. It's up to you to decide when they're ready to progress to the next step, but here are some basic guidelines.

  • Watching you in the workshop: Can stand relatively still for long periods, will listen to and obey instructions.
  • Helping you in the workshop: Able to (and interested in) identifying different sizes and types of tools like wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, etc.
  • Using basic power tools like drills, sanders: Good hand-eye coordination, patience, can stay calm.
  • Using more complex/dangerous tools like bench saws, soldering equipment: Willing to work under your supervision at first, always wears necessary protective equipment.
  • Working independently on projects in the workshop without your supervision: Plans and goes over a project with you, knows tools/equipment needed and protective equipment required.

Dangers Posed by Power Tools

As you introduce your children to power tools, keep in mind how dangerous they can be, even for trained professionals. According to the Consumer Products Safety Division, these are the number of injuries from power tools requiring medical treatment in a year (many among adults who are trained in their use).

  • Bench or table saws: 64,651
  • Grinder, buffer, polisher: 45,471
  • Welding, soldering, cutting torches: 37,189  
  • Nail guns or stud drivers: 32,055
  • Power drills: 12,981
  • Power sanders: 2,393

Most common power tool injuries (includes adults and trained tool users)

Lighting and Flooring

Two overlooked aspects of garage/workshop safety are lighting and flooring. Many garages aren't designed with the type of lighting needed for fine woodworking or precise welding. Replacing older bulbs with modern LEDs is a start. If you have a workspace where you are frequently doing tasks, you may want to install or buy additional lighting in the form of overhead lights or lamps. It's a good idea to have some portable lighting available if you want to work at dusk or into the night. All this is especially important if you're going to have kids working with tools for the first time. And extra light can help you spot wayward pets before they get into dangerous situations.

Garage floors aren't typically made for heavy use. They can be slippery when wet and are susceptible to staining or cracking. Yet some of us spend more time in our garage than in many other rooms in our home. A non-slip surface that's easier to clean up -- and safer for little ones to walk on -- could be a worthwhile investment.

Featured image courtesy Maxim Selyuk on Unsplash. Illustrations by Primeweld.

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