Skip to main content

There is a series of sounds with which I have become regrettably familiar over the years. It starts with footsteps, is followed by a deep thud and then segues into profanity (assuming no minors are nearby). They are the sounds made by the contact between a door frame and my 6-foot-2 husband's head.

For my friend Jared, sharp objects are the problem. Over the years in his kitchen, he has sliced his fingers on the rim of a steel can, demolished a thumbnail chopping rutabagas and cleaned the blades of his food processor a little too assiduously. Another friend, Ellen, has managed to set three toasters on fire.

And Lynne, admittedly accident-prone, once mistook the hot iron in one hand for the portable phone in the other and burned her face. She broke her toe when she lost her footing on the way down to the laundry down, scalded herself when a cone coffee filter suddenly tipped, and lit oven mitts on fire after turning on the wrong burner.

Whoever thought that home was the safest place to be hasn't been paying attention. And that's the whole point: It's when we relax our guard in familiar surroundings that things go wrong.

Canadian numbers are difficult to come by, but in the United States, more than four million disabling accidents are documented in the home every year, according to the U.S. National Safety Council. And 27,000 of those accidents end in death.

"The kitchen is the most dangerous room in the house," according to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons' Complete Home Medical Guide, available online at cpmcnet.columbia.edu/texts/guide. In its chapter on safety, it offers tips for avoiding all manner of kitchen calamities such as falls, cuts, scalds, electrical shocks and poisonings. The kitchen is also a major source of fires -- which can start in myriad locations including the deep fryer, the oven and the wiring.

According to the Canada Safety Council, fire is the third-leading cause of accidental death in Canada; about 85 per cent of fires happen at home, most of them a result of smoke inhalation. Many fires that start in the kitchen, for example, lead to deaths in other parts of the house, especially when people are asleep.

That is likely why, statistically, the bedroom is the site of more fatal accidents than anywhere else in the house, according to the Columbia site. Besides fires, there are falls out of bed and stumbles in the dark, leading to fatal fractures.

In sheer volume of accidents, however, the bathroom is the second most dangerous room, the site of about 200,000 U.S. injuries a year, including burns, falls and shocks.

In Canada, the numbers just aren't available, says Canada Safety Council spokeswoman Ethel Archard. "We don't know exactly how many injuries happen in the home because of the way statistics are gathered," she says. "The whole issue of statistics really is very complex. The kitchen is the most frequent source for home fires, but they can result in property damage without injury. Falls among seniors are frequent -- they are most likely to occur on stairs or in the bathroom, but a serious fall could occur in any part of the home."

Many of us don't start to consider what a jungle it can be indoors until we have children. Then all the possibilities -- the sharp corners, treacherous throw rugs, exposed outlets -- suddenly grab our attention. As my friend Ellen says, "Every square inch of the world is a deathtrap."

It's a fear that has given rise to boffo business for suppliers of "kid-safe" items, with everyone from Ikea to Toys "R" Us selling a range of childproofing devices such as socket covers, corner guards and stove latches.

But once the kids get older, most of us are lulled back into complacency. That's a mistake.

By the year 2026, one in five Canadians will have reached the age of 65. At that age, recovery from injuries can be more difficult. Falls are a particular hazard: Every year in Canada, one in three seniors falls. "For seniors, the big issue isn't dying," Archard says. "It's falling and having to move into a home."

According to the U.S. National Safety Council, about half of all domestic accidents could have been prevented. The Canada Safety Council cites cigarettes in one out of five fire-related deaths. And according to the Ontario Fire Marshal's office, more than half the fire-related deaths in 1997 occurred when there was no working smoke alarm in the home.

Not only should every house have a working smoke alarm on every floor, it should have both a photoelectric model, which is better at detecting smouldering fires (the foam used in furniture can be particularly toxic) and an ionization model for detecting fast-flaming fires. Carbon-monoxide detectors should be installed near sleeping areas, and working fire extinguishers should be in the kitchen and work room as well as on each floor.

Most precautions are obvious: keep matches away from children and heaters away from drapery, turn pot handles away from traffic and don't leave the stove unattended. Store knives carefully, lock away poisons and medications, use a step ladder rather than a chair. And never leave children unsupervised in the tub.

But other measures are not so obvious. Every year in Canada, more than 300 people are treated for scalding caused by hot tap water. Most hot-water heaters are set at around 60 C, which will burn skin in seconds. But if you have access to your heater thermostat you can simply turn it down to around 49 C, the much safer level that is regulated in the United States.

And even if it pains you to consider the spectacle of your own aging, think about installing grab bars in the bathroom. "They're well worth the expense," Archard says, "and can make the difference between living in your home and living in an institution." In other words, you may actually be able stay to stay in your home until you're ready to leave.

For more household safety tips, go to http://www.safety-council.org.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct