If you want to know how handymen get hurt around the house, just ask the paramedics and the emergency room crews who patch us — er, them — up.
Falling is the most common way to get a lights-and-siren ride to the hospital’s express-lane entrance, according to national statistics on home injuries to adults. And it seems to hold true here, according to Capt. Adam Goldberg of the Northwest Fire District.
“It’s the leading cause of injuries resulting in death — 6,000 deaths a year, nationally, according to the Home Safety Council,” Goldberg said. And the Home Safety Council’s statistics say falls make up the single largest part of the home-related injuries that result in nearly 21 million medical visits each year in the U.S.
Handyman falls don’t always end with just a big hospital bill, a cast and a story.
“We recently had a (call involving a) 90-year-old gentleman climbing a ladder with a 5-gallon bucket of roof coating,” Goldberg said. The patient died from injuries sustained in the fall, Goldberg said.
The national statistics don’t break out the handyman falls, but Goldberg’s observation that ladders are often involved in home falls is telling.
Goldberg, a 24-year-veteran at NWFD, and Dr. Bradley Dreifuss, an emergency room physician at University of Arizona Medical Center for five years, said falls by older persons — whether doing handyman jobs or not — are all too common.
Although the 90-year-old man who died after a ladder fall was an extreme case, Dreifuss said some of us just don’t know when to quit – or ease up. He said falls become more frequent — and often more serious — when older people are “doing roofs and not wearing a harness, not roped in, cleaning out gutters ... doing things they’ve been doing year after year (but) now they have arthritis, (they are) working outdoors and getting dehydrated.”
Of particular concern are people 60 and older who are taking blood-thinning medications, Dreifuss said. “If people are on blood-thinning medications they should definitely not be putting themselves at risk for head injuries, not be climbing up ladders, making home repairs.”
Goldberg and Dreifuss, say there are things that anyone — handyman or not — can do to make a home safer.
Goldberg suggested we start with removing trip hazards, especially “scatter rugs” or “throw rugs” – either getting rid of them or putting sticky backing on them so they don’t slide when stepped on.
Also on the list is removing extension cords in walkways, another common cause of falls, especially among the elderly.
Smoothing out transitions between carpet and tile or smooth-surface floors is another way to cut down on trips and falls.
And, in general, Goldberg said, “remove clutter. That’s a big one” for protecting any age group.
If you’re looking for a handyman project that involves tools and a bit of skill — something that can really make a difference in home safety — Goldberg and Dreifuss suggest installing safety handles in showers and next to toilets, especially in homes occupied or visited by the elderly.
This is a solution to a compound problem. It’s not just that elderly people are more likely to fall; they say it’s also that falls are more likely to be life-threatening to the elderly.
In addition to staffing UMC’s emergency room, Dreifuss is an assistant professor and director of rural and global health at the UA’s College of Medicine. And when it comes to home handyman injuries, he knows what he’s talking about from another perspective, too.
“I am a homeowner. We redid our kitchen and a couple of the bathrooms. I definitely like to play with power tools,” Dreifuss said.
He says power tools can make things more dangerous. Take, for instance, the patient who recently came into the ER after his friend shot him in the stomach with a nail gun.
“A buddy waved it in his direction. Just the weight of the gun and the force of him from moving it in a circle pushed his finger against the trigger. It fired and shot his buddy in the belly,” Dreifuss said.
“They (nail guns) are much more widely available now. Homeowners have them now,” Dreifuss said. He recommends that we treat power tools, particularly nail guns, “like a loaded gun.”
Another factor in injuries is the lack of safety gear, including not wearing eye protection. Dreifuss said grinders can throw off material in an instant that can blind the operator.
“Wear eye protection. (Debris) can easily flick back and cause blindness. It’s usually preventable with a pair of safety goggles. Spend a little bit more money and get a pair that fit. I wear a set of clear lenses, like the sunglasses I wear all the time, but with clear lenses,” Dreifuss said.
Disabling safety equipment on power tools is another cause of injuries, sometimes tragic, Dreifuss said.
“One of the biggest things (causing workshop injuries) is people taking the guards off power saws and table saws. Honestly, it’s absolutely unbelievable. People get complacent when they are making the same cut over and over (or) doing a job that takes a long time. They take the guard off and lose a finger. It happens so quickly. Or something gets jammed and they try to unjam it when the saw is still running. The guards are on there for a reason,” said Dreifuss.
Electrocution and electrical burns are farther down the list of handyman injury types in terms of frequency but nothing to ignore. In his experience, Dreifuss said, electrical shocks most often occur “when people are jury-rigging connections.”
He recalls one involving someone who had just moved into a home with a garbage disposal that the previous owner or tradesman didn’t connect to a grounded circuit. “When the water was running and in contact with the bottom of the sink, when you turned it on, you’d get shocked.”
He recommends never assuming outlets and circuits are wired properly, especially in older homes. Houses built before the 1960s often didn’t have grounded (three-wire) outlets, but the outlets may have been replaced with modern three-wire outlets and appear to be grounded. A cheap ($10-$15) easy-to-use, plug-in circuit tester can tell you if an outlet isn’t grounded properly or has reversed wires.
If water and electricity weren’t dangerous enough, evaporative coolers combine a number of additional risks, including height; carrying equipment up tall ladders; working on moving and sometimes rusty metal parts; and usually exposure to direct sun and, often, extreme heat.
What could possibly go wrong?
That’s why many safety experts recommend never working on the roof alone, especially on swamp coolers.
Dreifuss, being a handyman around the ER and the house, is sympathetic to those who want to continue using their handyman skills as they age.
“You can take those rolling walkers with a seat and a brake and outfit them with a tool belt. A friend of mine, who had heart failure, hated that he couldn’t (work around the house anymore.) We mounted a tool belt, using zip ties, to the walker and he was able to work around the shop again. He was able to get around.
“It’s all about quality of life,” Dreifuss said.
But sometimes, if the job’s too dangerous or the would-be handyman lacks the needed skills — no matter what age – Dreifuss says it’s just best to hire a pro.
“There comes a point where it’s a lot cheaper to hire someone to do the job than pay the hospital bills.”
Dan Sorenson is an unlicensed, semi-skilled but very enthusiastic user of power tools. He buys hydrogen peroxide 2 liters at a time, Band-Aids by the gross and has averaged three stitches per year over the 29 years he’s owned his crumbling 1946 midtown Tucson home.