Don't Be Like Me: Wear Protective Gear When You Wrench

A few weeks ago, I had to make a mad rush to an optometrist because, while hacking away at my $500 Postal Jeep’s perforated frame, my electric angle grinder shot a small speck of rust directly onto my eye.

Because I’m never ashamed to admit my stupidity to the world, here’s how this entirely avoidable accident went down, and why it should never happen to you.


There’s really no excuse for using a power tool like an angle grinder without the right Personal Protective Equipment, unless sheer stupidity counts as an excuse, in which case, consider me absolved of my sins.

A few weeks back, after buying the entire Harbor Freight store worth of cutoff-wheels for my angle grinder so I could hack all of the rust out of my $500 Postal Jeep’s frame, I let my excitement for wrenching get the best of me. I slapped the first set of safety glasses I could find in my toolbox onto my face and pulled my angle grinder’s trigger.

In an instant, silence turned to a deafening friction-induced scream as the black aluminum oxide disk sliced against my Jeep’s rotten brown steel and shot sparks in every direction, covering pretty much all surfaces within 10 feet with a light layer of “dust.”

My friend Mike wearing the proper safety equipment while using an angle grinder to cut my frame.

Things weren’t going well, as I kept finding more thin, compromised frame to cut away, and worried that perhaps there would be nothing left of this Jeep by the time I was done. But that worry left my mind in an instant when I felt one of those sparks—a red-hot shard of rusty metal—hit me right in my left eyeball.

I was wearing eye protection, but the issue was that—having recently purchased a set of overly large hipster glasses after accidentally stomping and ruining my old set—the goggles didn’t fit properly. And goggles that sit too far from your face are basically useless.


It wasn’t really painful, just uncomfortable—but no more so than if a speck of dust or dirt got into my eye. The only difference was, this time I knew it was a piece of rusty metal, which is bad. So I rushed to the bathroom, grabbed a cotton swab, and began fishing (In retrospect, trying to flush it out with water might have been a good call). The issue was, even with a flashlight, I couldn’t see the speck at all. There was definitely something in there, but hell if I knew where it was.

I called my optometrist.

They were booked for the day, but when I told them there was a piece of rusty metal in my eye, they made it work. Within 20 minutes, an eye doctor was gazing into my lens with his fancy “Slit Lamp” microscope.


“Uh, yeah, there’s something on the surface of your cornea,” he said. “Also, there are lots of little bits swimming around in your tears.” Then he broke out his cotton swab and dispatched those metal bits from my eye, gave me a prescription for some eye drops, and sent me on my way.

The rest of the day, my eye was sore as hell. It felt as if there were still something in there, presumably because that piece of metal had left a small scar on the surface of my cornea. Luckily, the doctor said it was all superficial, and that there was really nothing to worry about, as the cornea is the fastest healing tissue in the human body. The next morning, I woke up with a swollen eye, but by mid afternoon, it all healed up fine.


Who knows if that piece of metal might have come out on its own, but knowing that it was out was worth whatever coin I’ll end up dropping on that visit to the optometrist.

That visit changed my “just grab whatever safety glasses are nearby” attitude dramatically, as I realized that some things just aren’t worth risking.


Immediately after, I made a bee-line for Harbor Freight and picked up some goggles that fit properly, as well as a bunch of other personal protective equipment. And here’s one of the main takeaways from all this: protective equipment is dirt cheap! Like, so cheap that to not own it is just dumb.

Seriously, three of these big, sexy goggles are only $3.50:


You can snag these ear muffs, which are godsends against the loud grone of that angle grinder, for only $4:


And hell, while I was at the store, I went and dropped $13.59 on a respirator, because I’m working with a flux core welder that produces nasty gases, and because I regularly spray buckets worth of brake cleaner and PB Blaster penetrating lubricant on pretty much everything I touch:


So yeah, as much time as I’ve spent wrenching on cars, I do continue to make dumb mistakes. But of them all, safety-related mistakes like this one are the least acceptable, so just go out and spend a few bucks at Harbor Freight or wherever. Not only will it keep you out of trouble, it will make you a much better and more efficient wrencher.

Or at least, that’s what it’s done for me. With all of this equipment protecting my face, I find myself more willing to get right up into the action. Where sparks or the nasty fumes of burning penetrating lubricant might otherwise have held me back, I find myself leaning in, and getting the job done faster than ever.


And that alone makes buying the silly goggles and scary face-mask worth it.

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About the author

David Tracy

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).