With summer in full swing, people across the country are indulging in one of America’s favorite pastimes: having backyard barbecues. There’s just something about the smell of food cooking over an open flame that makes the season feel complete! But don’t let food, friends, and fun distract you from putting on a safe, healthy event—a few simple tips can ensure your cookout is memorable for all the right reasons.
BEFORE YOU GRILL
Before you strike a match or turn a propane knob, take some time to set yourself up for success—and safety.
Consider a charcoal grill. Propane grills, also known as gas grills, may win hands-down for convenience with their push-button starters and quick heating times, but that ease of use comes at a cost: 85% of grills involved in home fires are gas grills. Should you opt for gas, take some time to read through the instruction manual to ensure you’re as safe as possible.
Check for recalls. Even if your grill was brand-new last season, it’s still possible that the manufacturer has discovered a flaw that resulted in a recall. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website is an easy place to search—just enter the model of your grill to search for any recent recall notices.
Do a thorough inspection. More than likely, your grill spent the off-season sitting outside in the elements. Heat, cold, rain, snow, even just the passing of time—they can all take a toll on your grill’s lifespan. As part of your inspection:
- Check hoses for cracks, holes, and general brittleness—they should bend and flex without cracking or peeling.
- Check for any blockages—often caused by food drippings, ash buildup, or bugs—and clear any you find with a wire cleaning tool or pipe cleaner.
- Check for hose leaks by rubbing a solution of one part liquid soap and one part water along the hoses and connections. Turn the tank valve to the “on” position—any issues will be revealed by soap bubbles forming at the site of the leak.
Choose your grill site. It may seem like common sense not to light an open flame in an enclosed or covered area, but you’d be surprised: more than 10,000 house fires each year are attributed to outdoor grills. Whatever the weather, don’t be tempted to use your grill in any sort of covered area, like garages, carports, breezeways, courtyards, or covered porches/patios. The fire danger may be apparent, but there’s also a risk of grill-related carbon monoxide poisoning, which is the cause of eight fatalities each year on average. To be safe, the CPSC recommends setting up your grill at least 10 feet from any building.
Also, pay attention to the surface under your grill. The grill should be on a clear, flat surface where it isn’t in danger of being tipped over. If you’ve set it up on a deck or patio, consider placing a grill pad or splatter mat underneath to protect the surface from drips and splatters.
Dress for success! It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy, but you’d do better to not roll straight off the beach and directly to your grill. Your daytime flip-flops and sleeveless shirt may be cool and comfy, but you’ll want a bit more protection between you and the fire. At a minimum, wear closed-toe shoes (especially around charcoal grills, which occasionally shed cinders out the bottom vent). Also be mindful of any loose fabric, like shirttails, baggy sleeves, or even apron strings.
It’s a pity that the same flames that give steaks a tantalizing sear and burgers an irresistible char can quickly turn a pleasant gathering into a tragedy. Don’t let your cookout become a statistic—take the time to follow a few simple safety steps.
Keep it clean. Just like you’d tidy up your kitchen after an indoor dinner, you’ll need to take the time to clean your grill each time you use it. Remove buildup on all surfaces of the grill—including the grate, the burners, and the tray underneath. It’s tedious but important: In 25% of grill fires, the grill had not been cleaned.
Practice safe lighting. If you’re using charcoal, only use charcoal starter fluid, never gasoline or any other liquid propellant. Better yet, consider using a charcoal chimney starter, which uses newspaper or similar material to start the fire instead of propellant. A bonus is that your meal won’t have that slightly chemical taste lighter fluid always seems to impart.
For a gas grill, read the instruction manual closely since starters can vary from model to model. Another important note: If the flame goes out at any point, be sure to turn all the burner knobs and the propane valve to the “off” position, then wait at least five minutes before attempting to restart the grill.
Keep a close watch. No matter whether it’s gas or charcoal, never ever leave your grill unattended—it only takes a few seconds for a potentially dangerous situation to take hold. A simple flare-up can be controlled by adjusting the knobs of a gas grill or spreading the coals on a charcoal grill. For a more serious grease fire, make sure you have baking soda, a bucket of sand, or a kitchen fire extinguisher nearby to smother the flames.
In addition to monitoring the fire, be sure to keep a close eye on your guests. It’s great to have company when you’re flipping burgers, but make sure everyone keeps a safe distance from the extremely hot metal device on which you’re cooking with an open flame—especially children!
Keep it clean and safe. When cleaning your grill, remember that cleaning it in a way that keeps your food safe and tasty is also important. Steer clear of harsh chemical cleaners—a little elbow grease will achieve the same result without tainting your next grilled meal. For baked-on grime, use tongs to rub a wad of aluminum foil or a halved onion or lemon over a still-warm grate.
Once you’ve loosened some of the gunk, give the grate a good brushing with a non-wire grill brush. Wire brushes used to be the standard, but it’s possible for a wire strand to break off and get into the food, causing major intestinal damage to anyone who accidentally ingests it. Safer alternatives include nylon brushes, coiled wire tools, pumice stones, and wooden tools specially made for the (messy) task at hand.
Follow the numbers. While there are plenty of myths about checking food for done-ness (Does the steak feel like your index finger or your cheek? Did the chicken breast shrink by 20%? Does the pork chop juice run clear when you poke it?), the surest way to tell if your meat is safely cooked is with a meat thermometer. Features like Bluetooth connectivity make it easier than ever to monitor your food—and a simple web search will tell you what temperature you need to achieve for your particular meal.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
So you’ve taken all the precautions. While that gives you peace of mind and substantially ups your chances of an incident-free cookout, accidents can still happen.
If there’s a structure fire—no matter how small—call 911 immediately. A smoldering deck can quickly lead to a fully engulfed house, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you or one of your guests sustains a burn, immediate action can have a major impact
- Burn wounds can be cooled with room-temperature or cool tap water to provide some pain relief and limit and further injury to the burned area, but for no longer than approximately 5 minutes. Never directly apply ice or ice water.
- You can then cover the wound with wet gauze or towels for up to 30 minutes if needed to help relieve the pain.
- Over the counter pain relievers are beneficial to help control the pain.
- The burn can be covered with Bacitracin or Neosporin and covered with dry gauze and changed daily until the burn heals.
- If a large area on the body is involved or there are burns to the head, face, palms of hands, soles of feet, or groin, you should be evaluated by a medical provider immediately.
For a major burn, again cool the skin with running water or a compress, then loosely cover the wound and immediately seek medical attention. Find the BetterMed location closest to you so you’ll be prepared should the need arise.
“Grilling”, National Fire Prevention Agency, https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Data-research-and-tools/US-Fire-Problem/Home-Grill-Fires
“Grilling Safety and Insurance”, Insurance Information Institute, https://www.iii.org/article/grilling-safety-and-insurance
“CPSC Releases Grill Safety Tips”, Consumer Product Safety Commission, https://www.cpsc.gov/Newsroom/News-Releases/2011/Fire-It-Up-Safely-CPSC-Recommends-Safety-Check-Before-Grilling-This-Summer
“Grilling by the Numbers”, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/21/living/grilling-by-the-numbers/index.html
“Guard Against Wire Grill Brush Dangers”, Consumer Reports, https://www.consumerreports.org/food-safety/wire-grill-brush-danger/