Grilling Safety Guide – How to Avoid BBQ Accidents

Grilling Safety Guide – How to Avoid BBQ Accidents

The sun’s out, steaks are sizzling, and grill safety is probably the last thing on your mind. That’s understandable, and this article isn’t meant to make you worry, but there is an inherent risk present whenever you’re dealing with fire. We have created this ultimate guide to grilling safety so you can keep your family and property safe every time you fire up the grill.

The United States Fire Administration [1] and the National Fire Protection Association [2] provide a variety of statistics on grill-related accidents and fires. Here are some notable numbers:

  • Each year residential grill fires cause an average of $37 million in property damage.
  • About half (49%) of these fires happen between 5 PM and 8 PM, and the majority (57%) occur during May, June, July, and August.
  • Gas-fueled grills account for 79% of grill fires on residential properties.
  • The leading cause (35%) of ignition is mechanical failure or malfunction.
  • In 2014 alone, ~16,600 people made emergency room visits due to grill-related injuries.
  • From 2009 - 2013, fire departments in the United States responded to roughly 8,900 residential fires involving grills per year.

Tips for Safe Grilling

Now that you have an idea of just how many people get themselves into serious trouble while grilling, let’s make sure you aren’t a part of those statistics. Here are some tips to ensure that your next barbecue is a safe one, starting with general topics, then moving into specifics for charcoal and gas grills:

Avoid (Excessive Amounts of) Alcohol!

It’s no coincidence that alcohol is first on our list. Drinking is a factor in the vast majority of grilling accidents, at least according to Lt. Hank Balch, a veteran firefighter from Manchester, New Hampshire.

One of the most important rules of grilling is to never leave your grill unattended. When under the influence of alcohol it’s much easier to step away from your food and even forget about it for an extended period of time if you get distracted with other things. It might also be tempting to throw a little extra lighter fluid on your charcoal, or do any number of irresponsible things depending on your level of intoxication. We’ll keep this section short and avoid lecturing too much, but for the sake of your health, property, and quality of your food, keep your alcohol intake low while the fire is going, and indulge only after food is served.

Location, Location, Location

One statistic not mentioned above is that 32% of residential grill fires start on patios, courtyards, screened-in porches, or terraces, and another 24% start on exterior balconies and unenclosed porches. [1] Choosing a safe place for your grill is half the battle in eliminating fire accidents.

When setting up your grill, it’s important to pick a spot that is a safe distance from any potentially flammable objects and also allows smoke to clear. It should be at least 10 feet away from your house, garage, or or any other flammable objects. Choose an area where the ground is flat, and make sure there are no branches overhead. Never use a grill on a balcony or under any type of overhanging structure.

It’s also a good idea to keep children and pets a minimum of three feet away from your grill when cooking. Of course their constant movement makes this a little more difficult, and that’s all the more reason to keep an eye on your grill at all times. If you need even more reason to be concerned, note that in 2014 children less than five years of age made up one-third of the 4,900 reported thermal burns. [2] If you do have younger kids, consider drawing a chalk or paint circle around your grill so your little ones have a constant visual reminder of a safe boundary line.

Lastly, if you do need to resituate your grill at any time, make sure it is completely cool. This will eliminate the chance of a contact burn and prevent any hot bits from falling from the grill.

Proper Attire and Accessories

Be mindful of any loose clothing you might be wearing while grilling – in particular keep an eye on your shirt sleeves, and keep your apron tight if you wear one. To protect your hands, invest in some grill gloves, which give more control than similar mitts. If you are manually lighting your grill, use a long-reach lighter. A proper grilling kit is worth it for the utensils’ long handles, and it should also include a nice cleaning brush, which will both make your grill safer and your food healthier. 

You might also look into getting a grill mat to place under your grill. This is good for catching any pieces of hot charcoal, and it also stops grease from making a mess of the surface below your grill. If you insist on grilling on your deck, the safety of which is debatable, a quality grill mat is a must.

Spring Cleaning

If you haven’t used your grill in a long time, check to see if any unwanted visitors have made it their home. Bees and wasps are known to build nests in grills, particularly near vents, and even birds’ nests can be found inside grills occasionally. Be ready for a surprise if you haven’t opened your grill for awhile!

You should clean your grill regularly to get rid of grease and fat, which can cause nasty flare-ups. Grease fires are no fun and can get out of control quickly, so remove grease from the grates, trays underneath, and any other spot where it builds up.

Also be sure to check for rusty components or surfaces from time to time. If rusting is severe enough, it can allow for hot items to fall through the grill, potentially causing a fire. If you need replacement parts, your grill manufacturer’s website should be able to help you out.

Food Safety

Grilling safety doesn’t start and end with the grill itself. It’s also important to minimize any potential harm from the food you are cooking. Before you start grilling, keep your food refrigerated right up until you’re ready to get it on the grill. If you’re grilling meat that was frozen, be sure to let it thaw completely before grilling. 

When placing your food on the grill, don’t overload it with too much food, which can increase the chance of flare-ups, especially if you are cooking fatty meat. And speaking of fat, it’s usually a good idea to trim excess fat. Cook meat to its recommended internal temperature – use a meat thermometer and consult the USDA’s safe minimum internal temperature chart

When your meat is up to temp and you are ready to remove it from the grill, be sure to use a different plate or platter than the one you used to bring the food to the grill, and dispose of any marinades that came into contact with raw meat. After you’re done eating, refrigerate the remaining cooked items within two hours to avoid contamination. In general, you should try to avoid the “Danger Zone” [3] between 40° and 140° degrees Fahrenheit – between these temperatures bacteria can grow rapidly.

The Cancer Concern

When it comes to the link between cancer and grilling, there are a couple main concerns. First, when beef, poultry, fish, and pork are cooked at high temperatures over a grill’s flames, muscle proteins form heterocyclic amines (HCAs). When consumed these compounds are shown to increase the risk of certain cancers.

Second, smoke contains chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). During the grilling or smoking process, these chemicals attach to the surface of the meat. Like HCAs, PAHs are believed to increase the risk of some cancers.

Does that mean you should avoid grilling altogether? No, but experts recommend eating grilled foods moderation. Generally, you want to avoid charring your meat and exposing it to excessive amounts of smoke. Follow these tips to reduce your chances of ingesting harmful chemicals:

  1. Use a marinade and/or sauce to prevent your food from drying out and charring.
  2. Cook smaller pieces of meat, such as kebabs, which require less time on the grill.
  3. Avoid very high cooking temperatures with indirect grilling.
  4. Trim fat to avoid flare-ups.
  5. Flip meat often, roughly one time per minute, to avoid charring.
  6. Remove any charred pieces of meat before eating grilled meat.
  7. Consider grilling more vegetables, which don’t form HCAs, instead of just meat.
  8. Clean your grill before or after using it to remove any charred pieces of meat.

Gas Safety Specifics

As noted in the statistics section above, gas fuels cause more fires (79%) than charcoal, so it’s good to be extra careful when using a propane grill. Start off by taking the time to read your grill’s manual. I know it’s not the most exciting literature, but you will almost certainly learn a neat trick or feature of your grill that you’re currently unaware of.

The leading cause of propane grill fires is leaks and breaks in the fuel line. To make sure your fuel line is in good condition, first visually inspect it for severe bends, cracks, or brittle areas. Next, use the soap-bubble method to check for gas escaping from your fuel line. To do this, you’ll want to mix some water and dish soap. Use a sponge to squeeze a small amount of the mixture all along the hose while the gas is running. If you see any soap bubbles grow, that means you have a leak. Get a replacement hose before using your grill again.

 

Make sure you start your grill with the cover open – otherwise you might let a dangerous amount of gas build up. If you can’t get the gas to light up within 10 seconds of turning on the gas, cut it off and wait a few minutes before trying again. When you are done using your propane grill, be sure to cut off the fuel supply (tank valve) in addition to turning off the burners (control valves). 

If you don’t grill year round, be sure to choose an appropriate place to store your propane tank. Never store your tank indoors – not even in your shed or garage. Instead, choose a dry and well-ventilated outdoor space. If you have kids or pets that play outside, make sure it is out of reach. And whether you are storing or using your your tank, it should always be in an upright position.

Charcoal Grill Safety Specifics

While charcoal grills are not responsible for as many accidents as their propane counterparts, burning hot coals obviously still has the potential to be extremely dangerous. 

When lighting up your charcoal, it’s okay to use a moderate amount of charcoal lighter fluid, but never squirt additional lighter fluid to hot coals, which can cause a flash fire. Be sure to only use a lighter fluid made for charcoal grilling and never substitute gasoline, kerosene, or any other flammable substance. When you’re done using the lighter fluid, put the cap back on and keep it at a safe distance from your grill.

A better option is to skip the lighter fluid altogether. Instead use a chimney starter – it’s a lot safer, and it will light your coals more evenly. It’s also the fastest way to get your grill going! When using a chimney starter to get your charcoal going, be sure to place it on your grill grate. That way you can pour your lit charcoal directly into your grill without moving the chimney and risking dropping hot pieces of charcoal.

After you’re done grilling, make sure your coals are completely cool before throwing them in the trash. The cooling process can take up to 48 hours, so if you’re unsure if the briquettes are still hot, soak them with water. Then put them in a metal container or wrap them up in foil before disposing of them.

If You Find Yourself in a Hot Spot...

Even if you take every precaution, accidents can still happen, so be sure to prepare for the worst. Have a fire extinguisher nearby, and make sure you have a good grasp on how to use it – you won’t want to waste time reading directions while an out of control fire is ablaze. It’s also a good idea to have a hose or bucket of water nearby, but never attempt to put out a grease fire with water – use baking soda instead. As you’re probably well aware, fire spreads extremely fast, so dial 911 if the fire appears to be getting out of hand.

The most common grilling injury is a minor burn, so it’s good to be educated on how to treat such an injury. However, if a burn or any other injury does appear to be serious, don’t hesitate to make an emergency room visit.

Conclusion

Grilling is a downright fun way to cook, and when you’re outside cooking up burgers and brats under the sun, it can be easy to forget just how dangerous the flames can be. Hopefully the tips and information in this article can help your future barbecues be memorable for only the right reasons.

Do you have any grilling horror stories? Do you think we missed any vital information? Comment below with any thoughts or questions!

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