Home repairs that can send you to the ER

It may be cheaper to do home maintenance and repairs yourself than to call a professional, but don’t let being economical trump your common sense. Emergency rooms have seen an uptick in do-it-yourself (DIY) injuries as home owners attempt their own repairs—sometimes with disastrous results.

Some of the most common DIY injuries—and how to prevent them…

• Antenna installations. This year, I noticed an increase in patients who had fallen off their roofs. They were trying to save money by giving up cable television and installing rooftop antennas. Instead, they wound up in the emergency room.

Self-defense: Make sure that your ladder is in good shape and set up properly. Use a ladder made of fiberglass or wood if you’re working near power lines. Every year, I see patients who get zapped when a metal ladder touches a power source. In rare cases, people are electrocuted. More often, they’re “sucker punched” by the surprise of the electrical jolt, lose their footing and fall off the ladder.

Also, protect your hands. Most antennas are fastened to chimneys or other upright supports with metal bands. The bands can have knife-sharp edges. If you don’t wear heavy gloves, you may end up needing a surgeon.

• Gutter cuts. Roof gutters, even those made of vinyl, have extremely sharp edges. So do the guards that fit on top to keep out leaves. Cuts from roof gutters typically are jagged and very dirty—so there’s a high risk for infection.

Self-defense: Always wear sturdy work gloves when repairing or cleaning gutters. If you cut yourself, rinse the cut with running water for at least five minutes to wash out debris and germs.

If the bleeding doesn’t stop within a few minutes, go to the emergency room. These cuts are very painful and can be slow to heal. The doctor will numb the area with lidocaine and clean the wound more thoroughly than you can at home—and medical treatment may reduce scarring.

Important: Never go out in the rain on a ladder or on a wet roof to clean a clogged gutter—you’re much more likely to slip and fall.

• “Welder’s Eye.” The Home Depot and other home-improvement centers sell inexpensive welding gear. People without a lot of training or safety knowledge are doing their own welding.

Main risk: Corneal burn. The ultraviolet light emitted by welding torches can scorch the cornea. You won’t feel the injury right away, but about two or three hours later, you’ll have the most excruciating pain imaginable. Corneal burns usually heal on their own within a few days, but see a doctor as soon as possible.

Self-defense: Put on protective eyewear intended for welders before you light the torch.

• Insulation installation. A lot of people are insulating their basements and attics to save money on heating bills. Insulating walls is relatively easy—injuries usually occur when people are standing on ladders to install ceiling insulation.

Self-defense: Measure and cut the insulation before getting on the ladder. A lot of falls happen when people are standing on a ladder and trying to juggle a tape measure, a utility knife and a staple gun. Wear gloves and protective goggles.

• Hard plastic packaging. Everything from a spark plug to a screwdriver set now is packaged in tough, hard-to-open plastic shells. We see patients all the time in the ER who have sliced themselves with utility knives or even butcher knives while trying to open those things. Also, the sharp plastic edges of the opened container can cut you as deeply as a knife.

Self-defense: Buy heavy scissors or utility shears to open the packaging. And wear gloves. Good: OpenX Dual Blade Universal Package Opener.

• Lawn mower burns. One study reported an average of 74,000 emergency visits for lawn mower injuries annually in the US. Most lawn mower injuries involve flying debris, but muffler burns also are common. And late in the season, people who have been mowing their lawns all summer tend to feel confident in their handling of the machines—sometimes overly confident.

What happens: People decide to repair the mower or change the oil while the machine is hot. Touching the muffler, even for a fraction of a second, can cause a second-degree burn. Also dangerous is filling the gas tank while the machine is hot. Spilled gasoline that vaporizes is highly combustible.

• Lawn tractors. They’re designed not to tip over, but it happens. Manufacturers include safety mechanisms that stop the blades if the machine tips, but the blades don’t stop instantly. I’ve seen patients who lost fingers or toes when the machines they were riding tipped over.

Self-defense: Study the instruction manual thoroughly. No one should get on a lawn tractor without knowing exactly what he’s doing. Nor should children or pets ride with you. Also important: Know where the cutting blades are located. Different models have different blade configurations. I have a picture of a dog that now has only three legs because his owner didn’t realize the dog was in the danger zone.


• Position a ladder correctly. The ladder should be at a 75° angle from the ground or floor. That means about one foot between the bottom of the wall and the base of the ladder for every four feet of ladder height.

Also: Reposition your ladder rather than lean or reach far to one side. Be especially sure that your ladder is secure if you will be doing repetitive work that could rock the ladder.

If you use your ladder to climb onto a roof: The top of the ladder should extend at least three feet beyond the roof’s edge. You don’t want to have to stand on the ladder’s top two rungs, because you will be too close to the wall to maintain your balance.

• Protect your hands. Every home owner should own one or two pairs of heavy cloth or leather gloves.

Helpful: Hand injuries that occur during home repairs often involve the nondominant hand. We would see fewer patients in the ER if, for example, right-handed people would keep their left hands out of the way when using power tools.

• Wear special protective eyewear whenever you’re using a tool that could send debris into your eye.

Read the manual. Know how your tools work before plugging them in.

Never work in a risky location when you’re alone. If you’re on the roof or in a difficult-to-negotiate attic, you could fall, get seriously injured and need someone to help. At the very least, carry a charged cell phone in your pocket or clipped to a belt so that it isn’t likely to fall out of reach in case you need to call for help.

Turn off the main power when working with electricity. Don’t just turn off a switch—someone could flip it on when you aren’t looking.

Wear appropriate footwear, such as boots or sneakers. No sandals.

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