by Jonathan Briggs, MA, ELS
Despite the countless warning labels on tools and the liberal safety advice provided to do-it-yourselfers, many are still injured. Try the following four-step approach to home project safety to help you keep all your fingers and avoid unplanned trips to the hospital.
We have all heard plenty of tips on how to do home projects safely, whether they were wisdom imparted by a parent or friendly advice offered in discussions with fellow tinkerers. And we have all seen those caveats that come with tools and equipment hundreds of times: "Be sure power is disconnected before…(fill in the blank)" Or: "Set up ladder properly to reduce slip and overload hazards." And even: "Don't use this product without proper ventilation."
Injuries? What Injuries?
Most of us could recite these warnings in our sleep. So why is it that so many people get hurt—and some even maimed—working on do-it-yourself projects?
A study of nearly 300 amateur and professional woodworkers found that more than two-thirds had suffered injuries using common wood-shop tools. Nearly a third of those surveyed had injuries severe enough to require medical attention, and 5% had to have partial amputation of fingers or a hand. Offending devices included manual tools such as hammers and chisels and power tools such as table saws, jointer-planers, and drill presses. And those are just injuries caused by woodworking tools!
Other potential culprits include any type of powered cutting equipment, ladders, scaffolding, and car jacks. The variety of injuries and trauma suffered by amateur tradesmen is as wide as the array of tools and equipment that cause them: strains, burns, breaks, gouges, piercings, cuts, lacerations, electric shock, poisoning, crushing, and even death.
The 4 Elements of Do-It-Yourself Safety
So how do you protect yourself and your limbs? Well, reading and following all the instructions and warning labels on tools and shop products is certainly a good start. But rather than also memorizing a litany of do's and don'ts and sayings like "measure twice, cut once," why not try a different approach to do-it-yourself safety? Here's a simple way of assessing projects that will help you foresee potential hazards and avoid them. Introducing the 4 elements of do-it-yourself safety: fire, air, water, and earth.
Each of the 4 elements represents 1 or more types of hazard. Analyze your next project in terms of these elements and see if you don't recognize familiar perils and perhaps discover some new ones.
Obviously, fire is heat, and any source of heat can be dangerous. Typical sources of heat include soldering irons, various torches, wallpaper steamers, glue guns, and all internal combustion engines. But what about other sources of heat, like the sun, which can heat metal roofing to skin-searing temperatures in just a few minutes? Saw blades can be hot too, especially jammed ones. The reflex to pull away from a flaming hot roof flashing as you are trying to yank it free can be as dangerous as too much lighter fluid on the grill. More so if you happen to be on a ladder. And don't forget that ubiquitous form of fire—electricity, which can fry you as easily and even quicker than a flame. Even a nonlethal jolt of household current can cause burns or make you jump. And what kind of a holiday will it be if that happens while you're on the roof putting up holiday lights?
You have to breath, so be sure the air is clean. Things in the air that can injure you include smoke, dust, and chemical fumes. You can see and smell many of these project byproducts. But carbon monoxide, which is odorless, colorless and deadly, is a by-product of nearly all forms of combustion. Often as dangerous are the ingredients of many solvents, glues, paints, and cleaning agents. Even perfectly healthy, fresh air can be dangerous if it's in the form of wind that blows grit in your eye, or you off the roof. And air isn't the only thing that whirs around. There's also all those tool blades, belts, and bits that spin, rotate, reciprocate, and buzz. Think clean and calm when you think air.
The danger from water comes from its ability to get into just about anywhere, its tendency to make things slippery, and it's ability to carry energy in the form of pressure, heat, or electricity. Having unwanted water around a project is like having a gaggle of kids around—impossible to control and bound to make mischief. And just like kids, water often doesn't make its presence known until it's too late. Think drain and dry when you think water.
Earth is the element to keep in mind for any project that requires ladders, scaffolding, movement on inclined surfaces, or any other challenge to gravity and the laws of physics. What goes up does come down, and if you aren't standing on your own 2 feet on level ground, your odds of coming down involuntarily increase substantially with each increment of altitude gained. So, of course, do your chances of injury. If you want, you can calculate the coefficient of friction for track shoes on a pitched roof to be sure you'll be okay while you put up that satellite dish, or you can just wear a safety rope. Keep in mind also that gravity is perfectly democratic; nothing is exempt from its pull. So before you crawl under your Suburban to tighten that loose muffler clamp, be sure it's securely on blocks, not supported solely by a jack.
Being safe means being informed and being aware. Labels and advice protect you with information. Use the 4 elements of do-it-yourself safety to assess projects for potential hazards and avoid do-it-yourself injuries.
National Safety Council
US Consumer Product Safety Commission
Canada Safety Council
Becker T, Trinkaus K, Buckely D. Tool-related injuries among amateur and professional woodworkers. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 1996;38:1032-1035.
Make safety priority one when doing home improvement and repair projects. SafeElectricity.org website. Available at:
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Accessed July 7, 2015.
Safety starts with me: Home improvement and DIY tips. Asbestos Cancer Victims' Rights Campaign website. Available at:
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Accessed July 7, 2015.
Last reviewed June 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 9/30/2013
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