Hopefully your employer has a strong safety program and furnishes you with the proper guidelines, policies, equipment, and training that allows you to do your job safely and efficiently. I have a window into various worksites thanks to my line of work, and for the most part, the employees have everything they need at their disposal to help keep them safe. But, as I drive around my little town and through local neighborhoods, I see homeowners performing some pretty scary stuff as they do their chores. I see everything from folks mowing their lawns wearing flip-flops, to doing roof work on some very steep pitched roofs with no fall protection whatsoever.
Why is it that we are pretty darn safe while on the job, but at home, not so much? I’ll address several important factors that I believe drive this behavior, and I’ll offer some practical tips on how you can change working conditions at home to keep you safer.
One factor that explains the difference in workplace and home safety protocols is liability. OSHA provides the law that covers your activities at work – employers are bound by law to provide a safe working environment for their employees -- but the agency has no say when it comes to how you conduct yourself at home. While an employer can be found liable for a workplace injury or fatality and face fines or very serious litigation, if you injure yourself at home, it will most likely not result in any civil action against anyone. Essentially, it was your own darn fault (however, if you have a friend or neighbor helping you and they get hurt, you may certainly be held accountable).
Another consideration is the fact that safety equipment is generally more likely to be available at the workplace than at home. How often do people jack their cars up at home to work underneath? Speaking for myself it is rare that I am under my car more than one or two times a year, and as a result, I may not have the best, most effective and safest equipment on hand (in contrast, a commercial garage will have cars up off the ground constantly and will have multiple sets of jack stands). If you pay attention and look to see what homeowners are using as jack stands in their driveways, it can be a horror show. I have seen everything from cinder blocks turned up on end, to a spare tire and some 4” X 4” blocks fashioned into rather sketchy jack stands.
The rationale most of us use for these dangerous practices is: “I can’t justify the cost of purchasing jack stands that I’ll only use once a year.” While it might seem like a waste of money, please weigh that expense against the enormous cost of an accident, which might include significant medical and physical therapy expenses, lost income and possibly even lower future income due to decreased physical functionality. While all that is important to consider, it still doesn’t change immediate budgetary constraints, so if buying your own still isn’t in the cards, think outside the box a bit. Maybe your neighbor has a good set of jack stands that they can lend you or you can go to a tool rental center and rent a set.
Tool rental centers are a great resource in many ways. You would be amazed what they have available not for just tools, but also in the way of safety accessories. I recently rented a chainsaw to chop down a dead tree in our front yard. When I went to pick up the saw, the man at the counter asked if I needed a face shield, chaps, and steel shoe covers. I said, “Sure! How much extra will that cost?” He proudly said, “No charge, we want you as a return customer.” Now that’s what you call safety first.
Work at height is another activity where skimping on safety can be deadly. Every year approximately 500,000 people are treated for ladder-related injuries, 97% of which occur at home or on farms, and more than 400 people die from these injuries.
We have some steep roofs here in the northeast. Their pitch helps homes shed snow but is also just part of the regional style. Between the snow, ice dams, and all the leaves and twigs that end up in the gutters, homeowners are frequently up on their roofs clearing debris and repairing damage, but very few think to use any type of fall protection, and to make matters worse, most times they are working alone. When we are on the job, we most likely have a selection of ladders and fall protection that we can choose from. Those ladders are most likely in great condition and have been inspected. My Dad’s old wooden extension ladder is still under the porch at my parent’s house. I remember that ladder from when I was 5 years old. To put that into context, I just applied for Medicare this month. That ladder belongs in a museum, not propped up against the eaves!
Even if your ladder is in great shape and is the proper ladder for the job, are we using it safely at home? I have never actually seen a homeowner that secured their ladder to the structure. I have seen ladders that had just enough overlap at the top to stay in place, sometimes as little as just a few inches. I’ve also seen ladders used on uneven surfaces with a couple chunks of 2” X 4” jammed under one leg to balance it. I’ve seen folks hanging off ladders to reach a branch or a part of their house, looking like they were trying out for the circus high-wire act. We do things at home that would get us run off most employers’ worksites.
Lack of liability / disciplinary consequences, lack of proper equipment, and possibly a false sense of security (thinking that the home environment is somehow safer than that at work) are the primary factors causing unsafe work conditions at home. The fact is, gravity is the same at both places, our flesh and bones are prone to the same injuries no matter if we are on the job or at home, the tools are just as sharp and the vehicles just as heavy at home as they are at work. So, my advice to you is to take the same attitude toward safety that you have at work and bring it home with you. Beg, borrow, rent, or buy the safety equipment you need. Use the buddy system. Most importantly, remember that it doesn’t matter where you are, at work or at home, the injury you sustain will have the same devastating impact on you and your family. (Actually, sustaining an injury at home will probably have a worse impact from a financial standpoint, as you will most likely not have the same compensations if injured at home versus at work.)
It’s satisfying to tackle home improvement projects and repairs. It gives us a sense of pride when our home and yard look good, and it protects/boosts the value of our property. But don’t lose sight of this: our homes and our property are replaceable, but our bodies and our health are not. Be safe out there!
About the Author:
Pat Furr is a Corporate Safety Officer, VPP Coordinator, Chief Instructor and technical consultant for Roco Rescue. In addition to penning articles on a variety of safety and technical rescue topics for Roco Rescue's blog, Pat teaches Confined Space Rescue, Rope Access, Tower Work/Rescue and Fall Protection programs across the country. He sits on the National Fire Protection Association’s Committee for Technical Rescue and helped author NFPA 1006, which outlines the professional qualifications standard for technical rescue personnel.
A retired U.S. Air Force MSgt/Pararescueman, Pat also helps design innovative equipment that improves safety in the industry, including a Class III rescue harness, a revolutionary fall protection harness, and a specialized anchor hook used for container access operations.