Accidents Happen (a Lot)
Home is by definition a familiar place, so maybe it’s hard to see the potential for accidents big and small. But the fact is, a third of all injuries happen at home. Now that you own your home instead of renting, you’re 100 percent responsible for its safety — and more in control of it too.
As with home maintenance, there’s a ton to know about home safety, and you’ll be learning new things for many years to come. It’s not too hard to get the basics covered, though. And there’s a lot of peace of mind in knowing that you’re doing your best to protect yourself, your family and friends, and your home.
Here's what we're going to cover:
- The number-one cause of home injury
- How smoke alarms save lives
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Fire extinguishers and escape ladders
- Everyday fire risks
- Top 10 DIY injuries
Falls are the number-one cause of home injury and death in America. Maybe you expected something more dramatic, like fire? Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable, but a safety mindset is smart no matter the makeup of your household.
Prime territory for slipping. In the shower or tub, give feet a grippy surface (a bath mat, stick-on treads, or non-slip coating) and install a grab bar. Grab bars are for everyone!
Make sure all stairs have handrails and are well lit, and don’t leave stuff on them. Smart anti-fall tip from Real Simple: paint the last basement step white so you’re less likely to mistake it for the floor.
Have kids? Install hardware-mounted safety gates at the top and bottom of the staircase. One study found that in the course of a year, 100,000 kids were treated in the emergency room after tumbling down the stairs.
Screens aren’t strong enough to stop kids from falling through windows, so if you have little ones, install quick-release window guards on upper floors. When New York City started requiring them, children’s deaths from such falls dropped by a third. Keep climbable furniture away from windows too.
Responsible for more than 40 percent of fatal falls in the last decade or so. In 2012, a quarter million Americans were treated for stool- or ladder-related injuries! Be sure to set the ladder on a totally stable surface, lock the spreaders, and maintain three points of contact with it. Here’s a full list of ladder safety tips, complete with video of a health and safety officer falling off a ladder (he was okay). Looks like he got a little too comfortable up there.
Smoke Alarms Save Lives
Believe it or not, you’re likely to experience several fires in your home. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the average is five! Probably small ones, with little or no damage except to your nerves. But nationwide, fire is the leading cause of death for kids ages 2 to 14.
Most fire-related deaths happen when there aren’t any smoke detectors, or they’re not working. For new homes, the standard is to have hard-wired detectors with battery backup on every level, both outside and inside each bedroom. They must be wired together so if one goes off, they all do. Hard-wiring isn’t always mandated for an older building, but it’s a good idea, especially if you have a big house.
What type of alarms should you have?
You might see ionization, photoelectric, and dual-sensor smoke detectors. The ionization type detects fast-moving flames better, but the photoelectric type warns you sooner when there’s a smoldering fire (smoke inhalation, not flames, is usually the killer) and is less prone to false alarms. Because of those important advantages, the International Association of Fire Fighters and others recommend the photoelectric type. To be super safe, buy both, as separate units — it’s widely agreed that dual-sensor alarms have issues. Learn more.
First Alert and Kidde are two respected detector brands. You’ll pay $25 to $30 for each unit. The Red Cross might be able to hook you up with free ones. Submit a request at getasmokealarm.org.
If hard-wiring isn't required, wireless is an option. Nest makes a wireless photoelectric smoke/carbon monoxide (CO) detector (more on CO below) with a mobile app that will send an alert to your phone if it detects smoke or CO in your home. It even looks design-y. It also costs a bundle, over $100 per unit.
Visit Consumer Reports for a good overall buying guide.
Test smoke alarms monthly
Most people don’t, even though it’s incredibly easy: just push the test button. Please, put a reminder in your home maintenance calendar. When you test, vacuum off dust too, to help prevent false alarms. And to be on the safe side, replace batteries once a year, even if they seem okay.
Carbon Monoxide Is Deadly Too
This colorless, odorless gas can disable and kill you within minutes, so make sure you have CO detection! Smoke and CO detection often come in a single unit, like the Nest one we mentioned above. Again, check out the buying guide at Consumer Reports to learn more.
Note: In 2017, Consumer Reports gave a thumbs-down to three off-brand CO alarms sold by online retailers: NetBoat, Foho, and GoChange.
How to recognize CO poisoining
Early symptoms can include a dull headache, dizziness, and nausea. Then shortness of breath, confusion, or blurred vision might set in. If there’s any chance you might be experiencing CO poisoning, leave the area immediately and call or go to the emergency room.
Breathing low levels of CO over a long period of time can cause heart problems and brain damage. Warning signs:
- You’re short of breath and have mild nausea when you’re indoors
- You feel better when you leave home and worse when you return
- Other people you live with have the same symptoms
Get yourself some fire extinguishers and learn how to maintain and use them. Multipurpose ABC-rated extinguishers work on all types of fires and are best for home use. You need at least one on each level of your home, stored in plain sight, and near exits so the fire doesn’t come between you and your escape route.
Keep in mind that fire extinguishers are meant for small, contained fires — they run out of juice after about 10 seconds. Once a fire has leaped out of the wastebasket or the toaster, it can spread incredibly fast, so don’t delay: get out of the house and call the fire department! Even if you snuff the fire, it’s a good idea to have the fire department take a look. Fires often smolder and start up again later.
Do you know how to use a fire extinguisher?
Most people don’t. Check out this two-minute ABC News segment that shows people struggling to put out a flaming couch (and then shows you how to do it right). Remember the P-A-S-S method:
- Pull the pin
- Aim low at the base of the fire from 6 to 8 feet away
- Squeeze the handle
- Sweep from side to side
Learn more about fire extinguishers, how to use them, and where to store them from a veteran firefighter at This Old House. The Home Fire Drill Day website has drill instructions, plus games for making drills fun and memorable for kids.
DANGER: Do you have any Kidde brand extinguishers? On November 2, 2017, the US government issued a recall of nearly 40 million Kidde fire extinguishers that might not work. The recalled models go back decades. So if you have any that were purchased before the recall date, check the model numbers with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Kidde will replace them for free.
If your home is more than one story, escape ladders are a smart idea. They should have built-in “standoffs” that stabilize the ladder and hold the rungs away from the house. Be sure to do a practice run once in a while. Consumer Reports has advice on choosing one.
Everyday Fire Risks
Number one: cooking
More than 40 percent of home fires start in the kitchen. Usually, food or oil ignites on the stovetop. The main cause? Leaving the stove unattended. Resist the urge to go check your email while the onions brown.
If you have a fireplace or a wood stove, get the chimney cleaned and inspected annually, without fail. Annual inspection of your heating system is important to ensure both fire and carbon monoxide safety. Be very careful with space heaters — they cause four out of five home-heating deaths.
Smoking materials are the leading cause of fire deaths in the United States. If there’s any smoking on your property, try to keep it outdoors. Douse butts and ashes in water or sand. If you just toss them, mulch or leaves could catch fire.
Another big one. A common but potentially huge mistake is the use of lightbulbs with wattage too high for the fixture, which can fry the wires. Here are some warning signs that say, “Call an electrician!”
- A tingling sensation when you touch a plug or switch
- Circuit breaker keeps tripping
- Appliance gives off a rubbery or burning odor
- Outlet plate that’s discolored or feels warm
- Outlet sparks
- Light fixture dims or flickers
We’re using candles more … but apparently not being very smart about it. Candle-related fires have skyrocketed. An open flame is an open flame, even if it fills the room with the delightful scent of “agave musk” or “Amazing Grace.”
Most candle fires start because something combustible was too close to the candle. Keep a buffer zone of at least a foot. About a third start in the bedroom (talk about a hot night). Check out these safety tips from the National Candle Association. Number one: simply don’t leave a candle out of your sight.
Note too that candles aren’t great for seeing your way through a power failure. Among other things, candle safety might not be top of mind. Keep flashlights and other battery-powered lights on hand.
Top 10 DIY injuries
A lot of us like to DIY. It saves money. And it feels good too … until you fall off a ladder. Here are the 10 most common ways homeowners end up in the emergency room, according to Home Depot’s Pro Referral:
- Cleaning gutters: Due to falls from ladders
- Tree removal: Dangerous equipment and potential for getting crushed
- Gas line repairs: Whoa, people actually try to DIY this?
- Roof repairs: Ladders again
- Outlet installation: Better to leave this to the pros
- Insulation installation: Fiberglass particles in your lungs, not good
- Carpentry work: Power tools = danger
- Moving heavy objects: The human back is a vulnerable thing
- Landscaping: Power tools strike again, including weed-whackers
- House cleaning: Toxic products can hurt you (see the Household Cleaner Hall of Shame)