The Medical Minute: Take precautions to make home safe

June 15, 2005

By John Messmer
Penn State Family and Community Medicine
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Penn State College of Medicine

We like to feel safe and secure and often consider our own home the safest place to be. Yet, the home has its dangers, too. Each year there are about 12 million unintentional injuries in the home resulting in 18,000 deaths. Many of these are preventable by making safety a priority and taking some precautions.

Children and the elderly are most susceptible to injuries with choking and suffocation leading for younger children and falls for older children and older adults. Other sources of home injuries include drowning, burns, poisoning and firearms. Adults older than 80 have the largest number of accidental injuries, even more than infants. Injuries cost us more than $222 billion annually.

Simple precautions can reduce the risk of burns. Hot water temperatures should be kept below 120 degrees to protect the more sensitive skin of children and older adults. Test the temperature of food and drink, particularly bottles of formula, to be certain of the temperature. Keep handles from pots turned away from the edge of the stove so children cannot reach them and do not use tablecloths since they can be pulled down with the hot food. Oven mitts protect better than a towel when lifting hot dishes. Fires can start quickly even with an electric stove so keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and review how to extinguish a cooking fire. Take care with candles, keeping them and matches locked away from children. Place lit candles more than 3 feet from anything that burns and far from the reach of children and pets. Extinguish candles when leaving the room or going to sleep.

To reduce the risk of stairway accidents, use child safety gates. Loose carpets, toys and other objects on the stairs can cause tripping. If steps get slippery, install non-skid surfaces or paint and consider painting the bottom step of the basement stairway a different color to help identify it. Handrails help with balance; if carrying a load, keep it light enough to use the handrail. Good lighting, proper glasses and regular exercise to maintain strength are essential for older people to negotiate stairways skillfully. Reduce the risk from windows by locking them and by limiting how far they open. Use window guards and place cribs and other furniture away from them.

Cords on window blinds are a choking hazard and can be repaired to improve safety. Kits to convert the cords are available at (800) 311-7996. Cords on toys should be avoided as should small parts. There's a quick way to determine if a toy part is too small for a child under 3 -- if it fits inside an empty toilet paper roll, it's too small. Take care that the toys of older children in the house are kept out of the younger child's reach. Plastic bags from toys should be thrown away to reduce the risk of suffocation.

Poisoning can occur from numerous sources in the home, including cleaning chemicals, prescription and over-the-counter medications. Every potential poison should have a child-resistant lid and be stored in its original containers in locked cabinets separate from food. Adults can protect themselves by reading and following the label instructions for mixing, using and storing household chemicals. If protective gear is recommended, use it and consider using gloves when handling any poisons, such as, pesticides and lawn and garden chemicals. Never mix different products as some mixtures release poisonous gas. Keep the number of the national poison control hot line handy: (800) 222-1222.

Drowning can occur in a pool, a bathtub, a toilet or even a bucket. Keep the toilet lid down and the bathroom door closed when toddlers are around. Empty the tub when finished and empty and store buckets out of reach. For pools, a fence and self-latching gate are critical safety items. Even so, never let a child out of sight; drowning can occur quickly.

Smoke alarms are essential in all homes. If a fireplace, stove or other equipment that burns any type of fuel is in the home or there is an attached garage, a carbon monoxide monitor is an important safety item.

Firearms are the second leading cause of non-natural death in childhood and adolescence, typically due to the accidental discharge of a gun found in the home. Guns should be kept unloaded until ready to use and locked away from children. Machinery such as lawnmowers, snow blowers and power tools can be dangerous to fingers and feet in addition to the damage the loudness can cause to hearing. Read the instructions, do not disable the protective features and keep hand out of the moving parts unless the tool is stopped and the motor off. Remember to wear hearing protection.

Accidents happen quickly. A momentary lapse of concentration with a knife or other tool or forgetting about a lit candle or loaded pistol can lead to injuries or death. Protect yourself and your family by making safety a priority. More information about home safety is available at http://www.homesafetycouncil.org/index.aspx

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Last Updated March 19, 2009