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June 7, 2012
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Safety gear wasn’t designed to look cool, it may be uncomfortable and a little cumbersome, but it could save your life, or prevent a painful injury at the very least. Even working with humble potting mix needs some safety precautions (right). Photo: Estelle Grunberg.
Don’t let your DIY project have you reaching for the first aid kit - or worse - ending up in hospital.
Successful DIY is a joy and most of us escape the experience relatively unscathed.
However, people do sustain all sorts of nasty injuries with DIY. You can minimise the risks by taking some simple precautions.
- Identify potential hazards
- Prepare both yourself and your work area
- Use safe work practices
- Clean up properly
Unless managed and handled properly some of the materials you will be exposed to may harm you, your family, pregnant women, pets, neighbours, your garden and the environment in general.
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Mitre boxes are a great way to ensure an accurate cut and protect fingers.
Monash University’s Injury Research Institute says that “every year 15 Victorians are killed and at least 2000 are seriously injured” through DIY.
Queensland Fair Trading recorded that most DIY injuries from 1999 to 2009 involved the eyes (2027 injuries), hands (672) and fingers (504).
So, DIY really is dangerous and the risks must be taken seriously. The comprehensive list below cover scenarios that you will hopefully never come across, but forewarned is forearmed.
This guy is sending a text with his other hand...
Tip 1: Never stand on the top two steps of a ladder.
Tip 2: Never work barefoot.
Tip 3: Don't take cans of paint up ladders, decant smaller amounts, it's lighter and will make less of a mess if it is spilled.
Tip 4: Better still, use a proper hook to hang your paint from the ladder.
Four general categories of DIY danger:
- Physical injury – falls, power tool accidents, crush injuries and burns (chemical and heat).
- Material hazards – toxins, dust, fumes.
- Animal pests – bites and stings from wasps, spiders and snakes; disease from droppings of possums, mice; animal remains; bird lice/mites; other biologically active agents disturbed by DIY activity like moulds.
- Damage caused by animal pests – chewed electrical cables exposing live wires; termite damage that weakens structures.
(Some may argue that the emotional and psychological dangers of DIY jobs are the gravest of all. The families of DIYers are most at risk here, but advice on this topic is out of the scope of this article.)
Lots of potentially harmful substances can lurk around your home. Mould can thrive in damp locations and can cause skin irritations, asthma attacks and occasionally serious illness (left). Opening up walls (right) can reveal hidden nasties. Apart from the termite damage seen in this image, there will be fine dust that should not be inhaled, there could be pesticide residue, there may be harmful substances left by the construction process as well as the urine and faeces of other pests.
There are plenty of simple ways to avoid or minimise the risks of your project. Take a look at the general options below and select those that suit your situation.
We’ve covered a fraction of the potential safety measures, make sure you research all the options for your circumstances.
If your wiring resembles this tangle, seek professional help.
Tip 1: Never ever do electrical work yourself, it is illegal and potentially deadly.
Tip 2: If electrical work is done by amateurs, they may survive the job, but people who use the sub-standard end result may not be so lucky, there is always the risk of electrocution and fire.
Always use the appropriate safety equipment for your job, such as sturdy, protective clothing and footwear. Options include:
- Goggles to protect your eyes from splashes, dust and flying objects.
- Full face shields.
- Dust masks, or better still a respirator designed for the job you’re doing. Some respirators are for fine particles, others give protection from fumes.
- Steel-capped boots.
- Hearing protection when using power tools and doing noisy jobs.
- Overalls to shield skin from chemicals and minimise the spread of dust etc outside your work area.
- Well-fitting gloves that don’t interfere with the control of tools.
- Gloves that will resist any chemicals being handled.
- Tying up long hair to keep it out of the way.
- Removal of jewellery that could get caught, or in your way.
- No loose clothing that could catch or get in your way.
- Make sure there are at least two of you to lift and manoeuvre heavy items.
- Lift with your knees, not your back.
- Never lift with your back twisted or at an odd angle.
- Secure items that could fall if you slip, for example, use straps when lifting a window into place.
- Rent lifting equipment if appropriate. The job will be much faster and safer.
Now you see it now you don't: Termites can easily turn hardwood into sawdust.
Tip: Check all timber in your home, structural or otherwise, before you start working on it to check for any pest damage. Paul Daley, Archicentre. Photo: Craig Sillitoe.
- Never use tools that are beyond your level of knowledge, skill or strength.
- Always use the safety guards supplied with your power tools.
- Keep your tools in tip top condition – no frayed/damaged electrical cords.
- Ensure your power tool cords are clear of the area you are cutting/working on.
- Keep your body, especially your fingers, away from blades etc.
- Maintain a firm but not rigid grip on power tools.
- Disconnect power and wait for all moving parts to be stationary before changing any blades, drills etc.
- Use push sticks instead of your hands to guide timber while cutting where applicable/possible.
- Where possible use jigs and guides with power tools – you and your tools will be safer and your work will be neater.
- Always secure materials you are working on with clamps or a vice etc.
- Never try to hold materials by hand. Power tools can rip items from your grasp, which can cause serious injury to you and damage to your work as well as to your tools.
- Drills, cutting blades and so on get very hot with use. Do not touch them after any prolonged use.
- Keep all blades razor sharp.
- Do not use rickety ladders.
- Do not use tools for any job they weren’t designed for.
- Timber, masonry and metal require different types of specialised tools. For example you must not use a timber saw blade on metal.
- Use the correct sized tool.
- Tools do not have endless stress tolerances; metal will snap if forced beyond its capacities.
- Always unplug power tools after use and if you are leaving them unattended for any length of time.
- If you are left-handed, be very careful using any tool that has a right-handed bias. Using some tools will just be awkward to use, with others it can be downright dangerous. Some of the things that can be a problem are; keeping materials steady, reaching on/off switches, placement of safety guards, also be aware that for lefties, the right hand is usually the weakest, but that's the hand used to control and guide the tool.
- Keep distractions like children and pets out of your work area.
- Keep your work area clean, dry, tidy and free of potential hazards such as things you can trip over.
- Ensure you have adequate light and ventilation.
- Ensure whatever you are working on is stable and secure. Use a stable bench, clamps, bench hooks, saw horses etc.
- Try to isolate your work area as much as you can from the rest of your home and outside. This will reduce the spread of potential contaminants.
- Use tarpaulins, drop sheets and tape etc.
- Do not eat, drink or smoke where you’re working.
Drilling into this floor bearer would give a DIYer a nasty surprise. Termites turn structural timber into paper-thin honeycombed shells.
Safety on the job
- Don’t work when your concentration is lacking, for example if you’re tired, have been drinking alcohol or taking medication that can cause drowsiness.
- Watch what you’re doing at all times and stop if you get distracted.
- Don’t rush or take shortcuts.
- Don't use tools that are more powerful than you can handle.
- Don't use tools you have no experience or training with.
- Learn how to safely use all your tools and equipment before you start your project.
- Practice on cheap materials, not the expensive items that are essential for your job.
- Carefully read and understand all relevant safety and instruction literature.
- Don’t overreach or stand in an unbalanced or uncomfortable position.
- Don't wear loose clothing or anything that can become tangled in moving parts or on a ladder etc
- Always cut away from your body unless absolutely necessary.
- Don't cut into walls, floors etc without checking what they are made of so you can select the correct cutting/drilling tools.
- Confirm you’ve chosen an appropriate location for whatever modification you are making. For example, that a wall is strong enough to support extra weight.
- Be very careful to locate any electrical, plumbing services etc indoors and outside.
- Wash your hands before you eat, drink or smoke.
Be especially careful when using ladders, as they are involved in a huge number of accidents.
- Use a ladder on an even, stable, flat surface.
- Only use a ladder on sloping surfaces if it has adjustable legs.
- If leaning the ladder, select a solid surface.
- Wedge or cleat ladder feet to prevent slipping.
- Never over-reach.
- Never stand on the top two steps.
- Hang things like paint buckets and tools on a belt or an appropriate ladder hook to keep hands as free as possible.
- Use the right ladder for the job, ie one with the right height, a step ladder or a straight ladder.
- Don’t use a ladder when you’re on your own.
Pest inspectors know what lives under your home, follow their lead and wear a respirator (or dust mask at the very least) when you're crawling around under the house and in the roof too.
- Just because you can buy electrical and plumbing supplies does not mean you can legally use them.
- Plumbing and electrical work is dangerous and illegal for the home DIYer. Always use a licensed tradie.
- Call the “Dial before you dig” number 1100 for any work underground like digging for fence posts.
- Look up when carrying ladders or other long items – power cables outside and light fittings inside are serious electrocution hazards.
- Never use power tools with damaged cords.
- Keep cords clear of where you are cutting, drilling and so on.
- Check for electrical wires and water pipes behind walls and so on.
- Electricity and water are a deadly combination.
- Make sure the fuses in your fuse box have not been tampered with and will cut power in the event of an accident.
- Make sure you have a safety switch to minimise the dangers of electrical accidents.
- Disconnect power and/or water if working near those services.
- Inspect recycled timber for any metal before cutting with power tools eg nails and staples.
- Treated and manufactured timber contains toxic substances, as do some types of untreated timber.
- Never burn treated timber in BBQs, fireplaces or poorly ventilated areas.
- The fine particles in sawdust are irritants that can cause serious skin and lung problems for people with sensitivities and asthma.
- Chemicals in manmade and natural timbers can be toxic and/or carcinogenic – they can cause a range of mild to life-threatening health problems.
This chap has two feet, the one beside the circular saw is his least favourite.
Tip 1: Never stand in an awkward or unbalanced position.
Tip 2: Use tools to secure/stabilise the materials you are working on e.g. use clamp to secure timber to sawhorse.
Older homes can contain hazardous building materials such as asbestos, lead, treated and manufactured timbers etc. For example, lead can be found in paint, solder, damp coursing and flashing.
It's easy to lose your balance when you're using unfamiliar tools and wrestling uncooperative building materials, just don't do it while you're standing on your roof.
Tip 1: Don't do anything on your roof that you could do standing on the ground.
Tip 2: If you have to be on the roof, protect yourself from slips and falls with a harness. It's deceptively far to fall, especially if you land on a pile of bricks.
Dangerous materials can built up in or around your home over time.
- Dust contaminated with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals can accumulate in ceilings, wall and floor spaces and in soil.
- Pest droppings can be found in roofs, behind old cabinets, under houses and so on.
- Mould, mildew and fungus can build up in dry and damp areas.
- Sources include past renovations, exhaust fumes and industrial pollution. Dusts can be hazardous if disturbed.
- Repeated treatment with pesticides in and around buildings can contaminate large areas. Older pesticides such as organochlorines that may have built up over time can be potentially hazardous if disturbed.
- Pests can cause damage and also leave potentially harmful urine and droppings.
Chemicals used during renovation
Chemicals enter the body through three main pathways:
- Inhalation: where dust or fumes are breathed in and absorbed into the lung tissue and blood.
- Ingestion: where dust contaminates hands, food, eating utensils and cigarettes and is accidentally eaten.
- Absorption: where chemicals are absorbed through the skin into tissues and circulated around the body in the blood.
You can't overpower a power tool. You would be very unlikely to be able to hold onto this timber if the drill suddenly bit into it and jammed, the surprise alone could bring you undone. Splinters would be the least of your problems.
Tip: Use clamps or a vice for your safety and accurate work.
Avoid or minimise risks by:
- Following manufacturer instructions precisely.
- Keeping all dangerous materials away from children and pets.
- Using materials that give off toxic fumes in well ventilated areas, preferably with the appropriate respirator equipment.
- Handling powdered materials with great caution when mixing etc.
- Being careful with potentially harmful dust created when drilling and cutting through brick, cement, tile etc.
- Avoiding inhaling sawdust, see “Timber” section above for more details.
- Stopping powders and dusts spreading through your site/home to neighbours' yards and into stormwater drains, creeks and so on by using drop sheets, never handling in windy conditions and using a damp cloth to clean up.
- Using safety equipment when spray painting to avoid inhaling the mist of droplets created and getting it on your skin.
- Never, ever mix multiple chemicals in a way that the manufacturer’s instructions do not direct.
Volatile organic chemical compounds (VOCs) are emitted from some products and are easily inhaled as fumes.
Nine times out of ten you will be fine stretching to your limit, it will be when you least expect it that you give yourself a nasty strain or take the "fast" way down from where you're balanced. Falls from ladders are one of the most common causes of DIY accidents and can cause very nasty injuries too.
They are found in paints, varnishes, glues, paint thinners, fabrics, carpets, fibreboard, plastic products, glues and solvents, some spray packs, paints, varnishes, wax, cleaning products, disinfectants, fuels and manufactured timber among others.
Examples include benzene, acetone and formaldehyde. The rate of emission (off-gassing) from products may decrease over time as they evaporate.
Respirators must be used to minimise the dangers of using these products.
Prod and poke at damaged ceilings carefully or you will have chunks of plaster raining down on your head and lots grit in your eyes. This is a crumbling lath (timber slat) and plaster ceiling.
Pets and gardens
- Plants and animals can be more sensitive to certain chemicals than people.
- Opening up old walls and ceilings can release dangerous pesticides etc into your home.
- Animals are often curious and will want to investigate changes, or just join in and “help” you out.
- Pets can sniff, chew, lick and swallow all sorts of harmful items – for example, power cables, lead paint chips, powders.
- Ensure you keep your pets away from your tools and supplies as well as your work area.
- Don’t empty vacuum cleaner bags into your garden.
- Don’t hose rubbish and dust etc onto grass or into a garden bed.
- Loud noises will frighten nervous pets and tradies leaving gates open will help them escape unfamiliar, threatening situations.
- Never, ever dump waste.
- Do not tip chemicals down the sink or into drains.
- Some materials can go into domestic rubbish.
- Dispose of all waste materials as recommended by the manufacturer.
- Find appropriate facilities that accept the types of waste you have.
- Where required by law, have professionals remove hazardous materials eg asbestos.
- Vacuum, dust, launder, wipe down or mop any surfaces that could have collected dust in the rest of your home.
- Carpet steam cleaning at the end of your job can be a good idea.
- Always wash your hands when taking breaks.
- Shower as soon as you have finished working.
- Leave your overalls and anything else contaminated in your work area.
What makes a hand or power tool great is also makes them so dangerous. Good tools are razor sharp and chew through tough materials with ease. Skin and bone offer little or no resistance to an out-of-control tool.
Know when to stop
Never be ashamed to admit defeat, stop before you hurt yourself, damage your tools or your home.
You are not a professional, and will never be able to complete all the DIY jobs you want without a single hitch. This is not DIY TV.
Sundays in some doctors' surgeries and casualty wards are known as "Victa Sundays" as more weekend handymen succumb to diy injuries.
NSW Health warns:
- Exposure to some materials and associated chemicals can potentially cause a variety of health impacts ranging from short-term problems including lethargy, headaches, nausea and skin rashes to more serious conditions such as respiratory problems, nerve damage, allergies, severe poisoning and possibly cancer.
- Pregnant women, babies and young children may be more susceptible to the effects of hazardous materials at lower levels of exposure.
The information above has come from a number of sources including;
Do not try this at home ... it must have seemed like a good idea at the time ... to somebody. Don't underestimate the extent to which some dodgy DIYers will go, to get a project "done". If you start uncovering these tell-tale signs at your place, seek professional help immediately.
Please get expert advice on safety issues for your specific job. The information above is general in nature and not a complete guide to the dangers of and the safety measures needed for DIY.
For more DIY tips and advice visit our
DIY special feature
"There's one way to find out if a man is honest-ask him. If he says 'yes,' you know he is a crook." Groucho Marx
I know it is Australian but it does have some very good safety tips for New Zealand.
"There's one way to find out if a man is honest-ask him. If he says 'yes,' you know he is a crook." Groucho Marx
safety is overrated, you dont need all those fingers
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