Home Hazards and Household Safety Guide & Tips

By: MortgageLoan.com (Multiple Contributors)
Updated and reviewed: April 23, 2013

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Purpose of this Guide

This guide will help homeowners to identify and eliminate hazards that exist in their homes.
After evaluating this guide, readers will have a better understanding of:

  • The various home hazards that exist.
  • Ways to make homes safer.
  • The five leading causes of home injury: falls, poisoning, fires and burns, choking and suffocation, and drowning.
  • Household toxins like asbestos, carbon monoxide, lead, mold, and radon.
  • The dangers that small children face.
  • Areas of the home that are dangerous to older adults.

Introduction

The word “home” typically conjures up feelings of warmth, safety, and physical security. While purchasing a home can be a financially stressful, it’s worth it if you can achieve some combination of these feelings.

The problem is that we often work so hard to get to the point where we can purchase a home that we are too exhausted to think about how to actually make it safe and secure for our families. A comprehensive study by the Home Safety Council found that home injuries cause 21 million yearly medical visits and almost 20,000 deaths, 2,000 of which are children.

These figures are not shocking when you consider that 46% of homeowners have not done a single thing in their homes to prevent home injuries. While it’s easy to blame laziness, 42% of people haven’t made any improvements simply because they’re just not sure what to do.

Still, most homeowners—especially those with young children—know that they “should” be doing something. The problem with home safety is that once you realize that you have a dangerous situation, it’s usually way too late to do anything about it!

"The home is where people feel comfortable and secure, but constant awareness is the key to keeping families safe," says Nancy Nord, the commissioner of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Educating yourself enough to kick-start your personal awareness of home safety is not difficult. Identify the biggest hazards and deal with them first. In the process, you will be able to identify and deal with dangers that you never even realized existed. For example, while covering all outlets and locking up dangerous cleaning supplies to protect your children, you might think to check your blinds for chords that can be a choking hazard.

Making your home safe is a process that will never be finished. That’s partly because households are always changing. Your home’s safety needs will change as your family ages, as your home ages, as you get more stuff, and even as the seasons change. While the process can seem intimidating, vigilance is the best gift that you can give your loved ones.

Of course, this guide is just an overview of the kinds of things that you need to know to make your house safe. Seeing as anything in your home can be potentially deadly if used incorrectly, it’s tough to cover absolutely everything out there that is dangerous. Whole books could be written (and have been) on any one of the topics covered here, especially child safety.

According to Chrissy Cianflone, the director of Program Operations for Safe Kids USA,”Parents often overestimate their child's intelligence, and underestimate their abilities." If you already have kids, you’ve probably noticed that they have a knack for gravitating to the most dangerous parts of a home almost instantly! This only means that you have to be even more attentive with young children in the home.

We’ve tried to touch on some of the main points here, but you should definitely spend time investigating and reading further on your own for even more information. You might even consider having a professional to come over and do an assessment. Again, this is especially if you have kids.

A home is supposed to be the embodiment of safety and happiness. Spark your awareness of home safety and put in a little time and elbow grease to make that idea a reality.

Part 1: Examples of typically unsafe home situations

Situation: Greg and Louise are thrilled to have finally bought a new house together. It’s been a long road and money and time are short for both of them. They want their house to be as safe and inviting as possible for friends and family, but are so overwhelmed by the purchasing process that they aren’t sure where to start.

Solution: Before they do anything, Greg and Louise educate themselves on the top five home hazards: falls, poisoning, fires/burns, choking and suffocation, and drowning/submersion. As they don’t have any children or old people—who proportionally suffer from the most accidents—in the home, their job is much easier. They start by making sure that all staircases and bathrooms have plenty of grips and railings and are well lighted. Then, they install fire alarms and fire extinguishers throughout the house. The temperature on the hot water heater is way too high, so they lower it down to 120 degrees. Lastly, they test for environmental toxins like radon, mold, and carbon monoxide. As they get more moved in, they’ll do more safety measures, but this is a good start.

Situation: Chris and Brooke have been saving up for the past year and finally have enough money in their bank account to put in a new pool. They are excited to have friends over to enjoy the pool but want to make sure that it is safe.

Solution: After consulting with their pool company, Chris and Brooke realize that the safest thing that they can do is to install a locking gate that goes around the whole perimeter of the pool. They have their crew install the gate as the pool is being built. In addition, Chris and Brooke come up with a set of rules that includes no alcohol in the pool area and no unattended children.

Situation: Dan and Clara are just about to have their first child. They are excited about having a new daughter, but want to make sure that they will be able to provide a save environment for her. They aren’t quite sure where to begin baby proofing their home.

Solution: Initially, Dan and Clara are overwhelmed by all of the baby proofing information out there. Then, they decide to take it one step at a time and deal with the things that are most dangerous to their newborn. Their first stop is the baby’s crib, where they make sure that the mattress and sheets fit securely without any room for the baby to get stuck. Then, they educate themselves on bathing their newborn and emphasize to one another the importance of never leaving the child alone in the small baby tub. Lastly, they get rid of any plastic that is not BPA free that the newborn will come into contact with. Of course, when they baby gets more mobile, they’ll have a lot more baby proofing to do, but one thing at a time.

Situation: Phil’s dad, Roger, just turned 85 years old and is not totally steady on his feet. Rather than move into a nursing home, Roger is going to be moving in with Phil and his family. Phil wants to make sure that his home is safe for his father so that he doesn’t have any accidents.

Solution: After doing some research online, Phil decides to start with the bathroom, all stairs, and all rugs. He buys new rubberized mats for his father’s bathroom and makes sure that there are plenty of rails and grab holds in the shower and around the toilet. Then, he makes sure that all stairs in the home are well lighted, have tight fitting rugs, and are free of toys and other stuff. Lastly, he checks all of the rugs in the home and makes sure that they all have no-slip mats under them or are otherwise tacked down securely without any bunching. While he wants his father to feel independent, Phil makes sure to monitor his father’s stair usage and always has a family member listen in when his dad is in the shower.

Part 2: What are the top home hazards?

Back in 2004, The Home Safety Council completed the most comprehensive study ever done of the severity and causes of home injury in the United States. Not surprisingly, the rates of injury are highest among young children and older adults.

While there are literally millions of home hazards that exist, the study was able to separate out the five leading causes of unintentional home injury. These five leading causes are:

  • Falls
  • Poisoning
  • Fires/burns
  • Choking and suffocation
  • Drowning/submersion

These five areas are the best place for most homeowners to start their quest to make their home safer. Below, we have expanded on each topic.

1) Falls

According to the Home Safety Council, falls account for:

  • More than 40% of all nonfatal home injuries.
  • More than one-third of all injuries resulting in an emergency department visit.
  • More than one third of all unintentional home injury deaths.

The simplest of hazards ends up being one of the worst. And as you would suspect, falls are worse for young children and older adults. Very few deaths from falls occur in adults under 60. For children, the most severe falls are general associated with three products: baby walkers, windows, and play equipment including trampolines. Falls down stairs have been implicated in 75% -96% of baby walker-related falls.

Here are a few things that you can do to prevent people in your home from falling:

  • Put window guards on all windows. New regulations and free window guard programs in New York City have resulted in a 50% reduction in falls and 35% reduction in deaths.
  • Put soft, protective surfaces under play equipment.
  • Pay special attention to staircases. Make sure that they have handrails, are well lighted, do not have any loose carpeting, and are always clear of toys and other items.
  • Use safety gates both at the top and bottom of staircases if children are in the house.
  • If you have a dark basement, install a light on the staircase and paint your bottom step a bright color to make it more visible.
  • Always clear outdoor steps of ice and snow as soon as possible.  
  • Look out for pets: According to the Center for Disease Control, Pets cause more than 86,000 fall-related injuries each year.
  • Make your shower safe: use non-slip rubber mats and install extra rails or grab bars if necessary. Also, make sure that the existing rails and other supports are in good condition and can support your weight.
  • Make sure that you always use (and have!) sturdy step stools when getting things in the kitchen or out of closets.
  • Do not allow children under six years old to climb on bunk beds.
  • If you have small children, install locks on all cabinets and drawers so that they won’t be able to climb them.
  • Require children who are riding skateboards or bikes on your property to always wear approved helmets.

2) Poisoning:

According to the Home Safety Council, poisoning is the second leading cause of unintentional home injury deaths in the United States.

While we mostly think of poisoning as something that happens to children when they get into cleaning supplies and other household products, it’s something that actually affects people of all ages. You would probably be surprised to hear that most unintentional deaths by poisoning in the home are due to the following:

  • Heroin
  • Appetite depressants
  • Anesthetics like cocaine
  • Also, amphetamines, caffeine, antidepressants, alcohol, and motor vehicle exhaust gas.

Most of these methods of unintentional poisoning are for the most part self-inflicted and can only resolved by dealing with a person’s underlying chemical dependency issues. That said, effective prevention efforts generally focus on keeping poison out of the hands of children. While adults have the highest rates of fatal poisonings, children under 5 have the largest rates of non-fatal poisoning.

Here are some of the things that children are most often poisoned by:

  • Household and cleaning products
  • Personal care and beauty products
  • Medicines
  • Vitamins
  • Plants
  • Lead
  • Carbon monoxide

Here are a few things that you can do to prevent accidental poisonings in your home:

  • Place your chemicals high up on shelves rather than down low under kitchen and bathroom sinks where people commonly put them. If possible, store them out in a garden shed outside of the house.
  • If you have to put chemicals in low cabinets, use baby proof locks and be sure that you can properly close the doors.
  • Never put household cleaners in old drink bottles or food containers that might confuse a child.
  • Get children and pets out of a room before you use pesticides or other chemicals.
  • Always close the packaging on a medication or chemical if you are interrupted by the phone or the doorbell. Many poisonings happen when an adult leaves the room for a minute.
  • Don’t trust that childproof packaging on medications will keep children safe. The best defense is to keep the medications out of children’s hands in the first place.
  • Don’t (obviously) store medications on easy to reach tables or counter tops.
  • Be aware of where all of the medications in your home are, especially if you have visitors who might leave them in an open purse or bag.
  • Get rid of any old “watch” type batteries as children can easily swallow them. Consider getting rid of any toys or gadgets that use them.

What should you do if someone does get poisoned?

Call your doctor and poison control (1-800-222-1222) immediately!

3) Fires and Burns:

According to the Home Safety Council, residential fires and burns are the third leading cause of unintentional home injury deaths and the ninth leading cause of home injuries resulting in an emergency department visit.

As with poisonings and falls, the death rate is highest amongst senior citizens and children under the age of five—noticing a pattern here?

And while you may just be thinking that burns just come from open flames, a huge percentage of burns are actually caused by hot water.

Here are a few things that you can do to prevent fires and burns in your home:

  • Most people have their water heater at a much higher temperature than necessary. If the temperature is so high that a child (or adult) can be burned when simply washing his or her hands—it’s on too high. Keep your water heater at a low temperature of 120 degrees.
  • Use the back burners on the stove when possible. Children can’t reach them and there’s less of a chance of a hot pot getting knocked off of the stove.
  • Keep candles and other open flames out of reach of children.
  • According to Meri-K Appy, the president of the Home Safety Council, “Cooking mishaps are the number one cause of fires [and they often happen] when the cook leaves the stove unattended or becomes distracted.” That said, stay focused in the kitchen and never walk away from a pot that is in use.
  • Install smoke alarms throughout your home. Half of the fire related deaths occurred in the 5% of homes that don’t have fire alarms.
  • Regularly test the batteries in your smoke alarm to be sure that it works. Of homes that have smoke alarms, 65% of the homes have non-working alarms. Most often this is simply because of a worn out battery.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher in your kitchen.
  • Keep clothes irons and curling irons out of reach of children and don’t balance them precariously on counters or ironing boards. Teach children that irons and curling irons can remain hot even after they have been unplugged.
  • Keep space heaters at least three feet away from flammable things like curtains and clothing.
  • Regularly clean chimneys and dryer exhausts as buildup in both can cause fires.  
  • Don’t cook and hold a small baby or child at the same time.
  • Don’t eat or drink anything hot while a baby or small child is sitting on your lap.


What to do if there is a fire?

For kitchen fires: Always keep the pot lid handy. In the event of a fire, pop the lid back on the pot (or use a cookie sheet) to prevent the fire from spreading. Baking soda is also effective in stopping a fire (it deprives the fire of oxygen).

For whole house fires: Have an escape plan and discuss it with everyone who lives there. Choose a meeting spot outside of the home so that you can meet up and be sure that everyone has made it out safely.

How to treat a burn
If it is a first-degree burn where only the first layer of skin has been affected, do the following:

  • Hold it under cool water or place it in cool water for 10-15 minutes to reduce swelling. Do not ice it.
  • Loosely wrap the wound in a sterile gauze bandage.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain medication if necessary.

For all other burns, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.

4) Choking and Suffocation:

According to the Home Safety Council, obstructed airway injuries are the fourth leading cause of unintentional home injury death in the United States. In fact, unintentional choking and suffocation is the leading cause of death for infants under the age of one.

The three main types of obstructed airway injuries are:

Suffocation: when the nose and mouth are obstructed by an external item like a plastic bag.
Because they have limited mobility, infants are at a huge risk for suffocation. 60% of infant suffocation occurs in beds and cribs when an infant’s face becomes buried in soft bedding or a pillow or an adult rolls on top of them.

Choking: when something blocks the airways internally.
This is usually from bits of food or parts of toys. Children, who don’t always chew their food properly, are especially at risk for choking on small, round foods that perfectly block the airway.

Strangulation: when there is some sort of external compression around the airway from an object like the chord from a blind.
Children easily get things wrapped around their necks like drawstrings, ribbons, necklaces, pacifier strings, and window blind cords. An average of one child a month dies due to strangulation from a window chord.
Children can also easily become strangled by openings that trap their heads like spaces in furniture, cribs, playground equipment, and strollers.

Here are a few things that you can do to prevent choking and suffocation in your home:

Suffocation:

  • Don’t place an infant facedown on a soft surface like a waterbed, comforter, or pillow or on a mattress that is covered in plastic.
  • Keep your infant’s crib free of soft items like blankets, pillows, bumpers, and stuffed animals.
  • Purchase a crib mattress that fits snugly without any spaces on the sides where your baby can get stuck. Also, make sure that the sheets fit the mattress snugly and won’t get wrapped around your baby’s head.
  • An infant should not sleep in an adult’s bed, especially if adults are in it. Infants should also not sleep in the same bed as other children.
  • Make sure that crib bars are spaced so that a child cannot get his or her head stuck in-between them.
  • Infants should also not sleep on couches, chairs, or other soft surfaces.
  • Keep all plastic bags out of reach of children. That includes shopping bags, sandwich bags, and dry cleaning bags.
  • Keep uninflated balloons out of reach of young children and dispose of the pieces if they break.
  • Put child resistant locks on any airtight spaces that a child could climb into like a freezer.

Choking:

  • Have kids sit and chew their food thoroughly when eating so that they are less likely to swallow food whole.
  • During adult parties, make sure that nuts and other foods are quickly cleaned up and inaccessible.
  • Make sure that kids under four don’t have access to hard, smooth foods that can block their airway like nuts, sunflower seeds, cherries, raw carrots, popcorn, etc.. Also be careful with soft foods like cheese cubes, hot dogs, and grapes. Make sure to always cut them into small pieces.
  • Regularly, get down on your hands and knees to inspect play areas for small choking hazards that are within grabbing range like pieces of toys, coins, balloons, balls, batteries, jewelry, etc.. Also check in couch cushions.
  • Frequently check toys for loose or broken parts.

Strangulation:

  • Make sure that all window treatment cords are tied down and that the ends are cut so that they do not end in a loop. Better yet, replace them with cordless designs.
  • Don’t put necklaces or headbands on your infant.
  • Cut all drawstrings out of your child’s hoods, jackets, waistbands, etc..
  • Don’t leave babies unattended in strollers as they can become tangled in the straps and strangle themselves.
  • Make sure that an infant child cannot get his or her head stuck between the slats of their crib. Also make sure that mattress and bedding fits snugly.
  • Never tie a pacifier around your baby’s neck or otherwise attach it to their clothing.
  • Don’t hang things like bags or purses on a crib.
  • Always remove your infant’s bib after mealtimes.

5) Drowning:

While most drownings don’t occur in the home, of those that do, 80% involve children ages 4 and under and most of these occur in swimming pools and bathtubs. Still, drownings are the fifth leading cause of home injury death in the US.

A few interesting facts about home drownings:

  • One third of unintentional home drownings occur in bathtubs and almost half occur in other locations including swimming pools.
  • More than half of all drownings among infants (under age 1) occur in bathtubs. Another 12% of drowning in this age group occurs in buckets.
  • More than half of drownings among children ages 1 to 4 are pool related.
  • Most children who drown in swimming pools had been missing from their parent’s sight for less than five minutes.

As far as pools go, the only solution that has proven effective in preventing the drowning of young children is four-sided fencing around the pool. That fencing should also include a self-closing and self-latching gate or door.

Here are a few things that you can do to prevent drowning in your home:

  • Keep the gated fence that protects your swim area locked at all times so that children and others won't accidentally fall into the water.
  • Make sure all drain covers are intact and in place every time you use your pool. The powerful suction in the swimming-pool drain can keep even strong adults underwater. Hair and bathing suits on children can get caught in the drain causing them to be pulled under. If a cover is broken or missing, replace it before allowing anyone in.
  • Never leave a baby alone in a bathtub for any amount of time. Also never leave young children alone in a tub.
  • Keep your toilet lid down and keep young children out of the bathroom unsupervised.
  • Do not keep open containers in the yard or around the house that can fill with water.
  • Keep hot tubs covered and make sure that the cover stays in place.
  • Refrain from using prescription drugs and alcohol when using bathtubs or swimming pools. Closely monitor any adults who are using prescription drugs or alcohol and insist on getting in a pool or bathtub.

Part 3: Household Toxins

In addition to the top five household hazards, there are potentially many toxic compounds hiding in your home. These harmful chemicals are literally everywhere and you may not realize that they are making you sick.

While it is not possible to rid your home of all toxins, you can prevent short and long term health problems by minimizing their existence.

Here are six toxins to look out for:

1) Asbestos

What it is: A natural, fibrous material found in housing insulation, drywall, and toys that has been known to cause cancer.

What you can do about it: If your house was built before 1980, it’s likely that asbestos was used in the construction. Go online to familiarize yourself with popular asbestos products like insulation, floor tiles, and textured ceiling tiles. If you do find asbestos, find a professional to safely remove it.

2) Lead Paint

What it is: In the past, lead was used as an ingredient for some types of household paint to add extra sheen. Sanding and scraping this paint can lead to lead dust that can get breathed in or otherwise ingested.

What you can do about it: If your home was built before the 1970’s, use a home lead test to test the paint in your home, especially if you have pets or small children. If you do find evidence of lead paint, check online to find out safe ways to prep the area to remove it. Oftentimes, it’s probably safer to hire a professional to come do it for you.

3) Carbon Monoxide

What it is: An odorless, colorless, and flammable gas that is poisonous to humans and pets and can build up due to a faulty stove, furnace, or chimney. According to the EPA, low levels can cause headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, and fatigue. Higher levels can cause impaired vision, headaches, vomiting, and even death.

What you can do about it: Install carbon monoxide alarms throughout your home, make sure that all fuel burning appliances are properly installed and well ventilated, and never let your car idle in the garage.

4) Mold

What it is: Mold spores can easily grow within 24-48 hours when there’s moisture. It can live on dust, wood, drywall, paint, paper, cotton, or oil. Mold spores can trigger asthma symptoms and allergic reactions.

What you can do about it: Keep rooms well ventilated and if necessary, use a dehumidifier to keep humidity prone rooms below 50%

5) Radon

What it is: A cancer causing radioactive gas, which comes from uranium that is naturally found in soil. One out of fifteen homes have high levels of the gas.

What you can do about it: Purchase a kit to test for its existence, but leave the cleanup to professionals.

6) Bisphenol A (BPA)

What it is: A chemical used in plastic production that can often be found in water bottles, baby bottles, plastic wraps, and food packaging—especially the liners of canned foods. There is some concern about its effects on the brains of fetuses and children.

What you can do about it: Look for BPA free labeling and switch to glass when possible.

Part 4: Conclusion

Home safety is a huge part of home ownership. You owe it to yourself and the people who live in and visit your home to take the responsibility seriously and handle hazards before they come up.

Just as it is unrealistic to create a guide that covers every single home hazard, it’s unrealistic to expect that you will be able to remove every single hazard from your home. It’s just not practical on many levels. That said, your goal should be to minimize the hazards as much as possible. Start with the top five hazards and then assess your home for any more issues. Then, make regular sweeps every few months or with every new season—you’ll probably need to anyway as the hazards in and around your home are often seasonal.

While the responsibility of home safety can be a drag when you consider all of the effort it takes to think about the potential dangers in your home and all of the effort it takes to take care of them. And this is, of course, on top of the effort that it takes to stay on top of your mortgage, bills, insurance, general cleaning, and family schedules.

Nobody ever said that owning a home was going to be easy!

Still, think about it: you’ve already invested this much time and effort into buying and maintaining a house, you might as well go the extra step to make it into a “real” home by making it safe and secure for all inhabitants.

Part 5: Additional Resources

Government Sites
http://www.epa.gov/
A website from the EPA that covers site various types of dangers in the home.
http://www.cpsc.gov/
The website of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Contains lots of information on the dangers of various products that you may have in your home.
http://www.saferproducts.gov/Search/Result.aspx?dm=0&srt=0&t=2
Site from the Consumer Products Safety Commission that allows you to search product names for safety issues and recalls.
http://www.poolsafely.gov/
The Consumer Products Safety Commission’s site on pool safety for families.
http://www.bt.cdc.gov/
The Center for Disease Control’s website for general emergency preparedness. Covers everything from natural disasters to home safety to bioterrorism.

Organization Sites
http://www.safekids.org/
The website for the Home Safety Council. It’s a one-stop-shop for all things related to home safety.
http://www.mysafehome.net/
A room-by-room tour of your home from the Home Safety Council that points out the hazards that exist in each room of your home.
http://www2.aap.org/family/homewatr.htm
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ website with swimming/water safety tips for infants and young children.
http://www.healthychildren.org/
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ website with general information on the health and wellbeing of children.
http://www.nfpa.org/categoryList.asp?categoryID=1491&URL=Safety%20Inform...
The National Fire Protection Association’s website on fire safety in the home.
http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/home/household_checklist.html
A site from KidsHealth.org with lots of household safety checklists for each room/area of the house.