Safe at Home

A house can be a dangerous place (if you’re not prepared).

Chaucer said it first: April is the cruelest month. It marks the beginning of dependable weather—a time when homeowners venture out and, well, have accidents. They fall from ladders while cleaning gutters or replacing loose shingles. They suffer second-degree burns when working around hot surfaces like motors or charcoal grills with clunky lids.

Then there’s the accidental poisoning, chemical burns, electric shocks, and wounds caused by portable power tools and machines like mowers, hedge trimmers and chainsaws. According to the Home Safety Council, more accidents happen at home than anywhere else; on average, nearly 20,000 deaths and 21 million injuries are reported annually in the U.S.

Illustration by Tom LaBaffAt the Good Fellowship Ambulance and EMS Training Institute, the largest center of its kind in the Brandywine Valley, emergency medical personnel typically see a spike in 911 calls during the April and May transition months, which suggests a connection to renewed outdoor activity. Executive director William Wells says it’s inevitable that they’ll get a call about a heart attack on the golf course, but the advice he offers also applies to homeowners.

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“All winter long, we hibernate,” Wells says. “And then suddenly, [warm weather comes and] we’re up for anything.”

Accidents are hard to predict—that’s why they’re called accidents. But you can still find ways to assess your surroundings and habits to ensure that your home isn’t a danger zone.

“You can’t prevent everything,” says Wells, who’s also a part-time paramedic with Chester County Medic 91 and a third-generation emergency services volunteer. “You’d end up being a very paranoid person who won’t try anything.”

Along with Jerry Peters, who directs Good Fellowship’s training courses and is a full-time paramedic with Chester County Medic 91, Wells is a virtual encyclopedia of accident-related injuries.

Rather than inspire fear, Wells prefers to focus on common sense and lifestyle habits. He lists the three basics: “Exercise, eat right and—here’s one that we’re not very good at in this country—get the right amount of sleep.”

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And pay attention to the world around you. “Like everything else, the seasons change—we change, year after year. What you did last year, you might not be able to do as well this year,” Wells says. “With that in mind, you have to assess your physical changes and do things gradually. You can’t get out there in 90-degree weather and rototill that garden.”

Good Fellowship’s roster of first-aid courses—including the popular pediatric first-aid class—is open to the public. The classes address some accident issues and prevention tips. But in the end, Wells concedes, training will never fully take the place of self-awareness—and finding that middle ground between complacency and paranoia.

“If you know you have a chronic medical condition like diabetes, doesn’t it make sense to talk to your family physician before you do any strenuous activity?” he poses. “I sound like a television commercial, I know—but it’s true.”

Wells’ advice is echoed by Harvard Medical School and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Harvard has reported on the correlation between age and accidents, pointing out that the chances of landing in the emergency room suddenly increase when one hits age 65.

CDC studies outline recommendations organized by “life stage” and population type, advising folks to consult their physicians about the need for tests that determine balance and gait, and pinpoint cardiovascular problems, joint stiffness and neurological issues. Your doctor should also review your medications and dosages—a potential trouble spot linked to accident-related injuries and deaths.

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Ultimately, though, as much as we might like the experts to make judgments for us, preventing accidents is up to us. Risk assessors contend that home accidents are based on either intrinsic factors (those related to aging, such as poor eyesight or insufficient blood pressure) or extrinsic factors (environmental issues, poor lighting in a stairway, an inadequately grounded electrical circuit).

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It may be especially hard to accept those accidents that hinge on stupidity and willful negligence—like substituting gasoline for lighting fluid on the barbecue grill. But mishaps related to unconscious lapses can be prevented by modifying one’s environment.

You can remedy most intrinsic factors (e.g., purchase new eye glasses or take up agility exercises) and learn to compensate for those that can’t be altered. Their extrinsic counterparts are perhaps the most pliant, provided you’re alert to the potential dangers. It may be a matter of merely stepping back and casting a cold eye down those cellar stairs, or keeping clutter at bay with the useful mantra, “Stop me before I buy another plant for the porch.” (Joking aside, clutter is a serious issue—and one of the main causes of falls in the home and garden.)

Extrinsic factors are often easiest to change because they’re most likely situational—like avoiding watering your lawn at peak traffic times. (After all, the neighbors won’t appreciate slippery grass during the annual block party.) To prevent drowning—a leading cause of accidental death—you might want to institute this simple home rule: Remove all pool toys and floats as soon as you’re through with them. And never let serious repairs linger any longer than a few days, especially stuff like loose handrails and cracked deck boards.

Alas, most of us would like to think we’re an authority when it comes to figuring out our home’s quirks and potential trouble spots. It may be one reason why repairs can drive us crazy. We’re compelled to try quick fixes—and blinded to the fact that it might be time for professional help. Further complicating things: rising healthcare costs, the prevalence of big-box stores geared toward do-it-yourselfers, and the fact that the emergency room has become the de facto family physician.

So what’s a conscientious homeowner to do? For starters, you can read more about common home accidents and follow the recommendations available from sources like the CDC’s Injury Center. And be sure to remember the advice of men who lived at a time when few saw 65—Harvard’s “red flag” age. Indeed, it was Ben Franklin who said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

To learn more about preventing home accidents, visit

10 Smart Ways to Prevent Accidents

1. Stay fit. As we age, we often don’t notice physical changes in strength and stamina—until we have an accident.
2. Stay alert. Many accidents fall into the category of “unconscious lapses,” such as tripping or slipping.
3. Slow down. Risk assessment analysts may never discover the universal schematic for the sequential order or cause of accidents, but they do know that speed is a factor. Enough said.
4. Consider the weather. Save those outdoor projects for nothing less than a bright, clear day.
5. Remember your doctor’s orders. Skip that big home project when you have a chronic medical condition.
6. Remove clutter. And avoid accidents that risk assessors grimly describe as the “collision of objects”—in other words, you slipping, tripping or falling on something that should’ve been put away.
7. Stand guard. Stick to simple rules—like keeping an eye on the grill, or steering others away from sharp objects and dangerous machines.
8. Use the right tools. EMS personnel report that a majority of cuts are the result of someone trying to open a jar or package with a knife.
9. Keep hydrated. Drink plenty of water. It’ll keep you focused and prevent dizzy spells.
10. Let a professional do it. Do you prefer straightforward advice or a minefield of choices? We thought so.

The Top 5 Accidents Waiting to Happen

Falls: Indoors, a fall down the stairs is most likely to occur. Outdoors, be wary of ladders.
Poisoning: Culprits include weed killers, insecticides, adhesives and solvents.
Fires: Including those caused by gas-grill explosions or the close placement of grills to flammable materials.
Cuts and burns: Most likely to be caused by the improper use of knives, and hot surfaces like stoves and barbecue grills.
Electric shock: Often caused by portable tools connected to a power source.

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