You could be spending a lot of time this holiday season in a particularly dangerous place: your home.
While most of us assume our own home is safe (in one survey, 90% thought so), it’s still where the great bulk of injuries occur. Each year in the U.S., an average of 21 million doctor visits and 20,000 deaths are chalked up to home accidents. That doesn’t even take into account the millions of bumps and strains that go untreated.
And all the holiday hoopla can make things worse: December is the deadliest month for electrical fires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
“The holidays are a time of year where you’re just going to be stressed out and tired and distracted, and sometimes there might be a little holiday cheer involved,” says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing home accidents. “These are all the kinds of things that conspire to make safety drift out of mind.” (Bing: Find more holiday home-safety tips)
The No. 1 home-accident killer overall? Falls, followed by poisoning, fire, choking and, lastly, drowning.
“The good news is these accidents are very preventable,” Appy says. “Think about the most important things, which are how to keep your loved ones safe and happy, and there are very easy ways to do that.”
So, the experts say, take a moment now to put safety at the top of your holiday list and prepare your home intelligently. Here are 12 things to check around the house before the guests arrive and the punch bowl gets put out:
1. Be wary of cheap lights and check those cords
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 12,500 people end up at hospital emergency rooms each year with decorating-related injuries. About 5,000 of those are electrical shocks or burns. Some cases, such as when ladders or light strings touch live wires, are fatal.
Preferably before you string up the lights on the tree or on your roof, check all the electrical and extension cords. Toss any that are frayed or cracked (don’t wrap with electrical tape). Buy only cords that have been tested by an independent laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratory, and that are clearly marked with the manufacturer’s name and product information.
An influx of counterfeit electrical equipment has entered the country lately, says the Electrical Safety Foundation International, a Virginia-based nonprofit. The products may contain a phony UL tag, but they have not been tested and may not be safe.
Christopher Lindsay, the ESFI’s director of programs, recommends buying only from reputable hardware stores and avoiding online bargains or deep-discount retailers. “If the bargain is too good to be true with an electrical product, be very wary, be very wary,” he says. “Unfortunately, these can have potentially deadly complications.”
2. Buy cool tree lights
LEDs (light-emitting diodes), those nifty-looking little lights a lot of towns are using now, aren’t just cool for the environment — they use 90% less energy — they’re also cool for boughs.
The bulbs simply don’t produce heat buildup. And because they use less electrical current, it’s safe to string together as many strands as you might need.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, an average of 250 home fires a year began with Christmas trees between 2003 and 2007, causing, on average, 14 deaths, 26 injuries and $13.8 million in property damage.
3. Don’t overburden electrical sockets; use proper outdoor lights
Old homes sometimes lack enough electrical outlets to meet modern gadgetry needs, and people improvise by treating electrical plugs as if they are Legos, stacking them every which way. This is not a good practice, experts say.
To prevent overheating, plug in no more than one extension cord per socket and string no more than three sets of traditional lights together. There’s no universally accepted number of cords per outlet or means to gauge electrical current levels, so that puts your home at the mercy of common sense. If outlets or power strips are hot to the touch, emit a smell or trip fuses, shut things down and cut back on the juice.
Better yet, expand your capability, Lindsay says. Preferably you’d do this before the holiday crush sets in, but if you’ve already decked your home, have an electrician modify the wiring before next year’s festivities. “There are ways you can get your home to match your energy needs,” Lindsay says. Any cost will be less than the cost of a fire.
Outside, note the condition of electrical wires before carrying and bumping ladders around. Big jolts can kill instantly; smaller ones cause falls.
Outdoor cords must be labeled for outdoor use, and should be protected by a ground fault circuit interrupter, a device that cuts off the current if a leak is detected. These cost a few dollars and can plug directly into an outlet. They also save lives, Lindsay says.
Without one, a damaged wire can transfer electricity into water or metal. “If for some reason the wire is damaged and electricity is leaking, that could make the whole drain pipe live,” he says. “Anything metal that it touches is live, including the decoration itself.”
4. Clean furnaces and stoves
If you didn’t get around to these pre-winter fixes, why not use extra holiday warmth as an excuse to do it now? Heating-equipment fires are the leading cause of fire deaths in this country. In 2008, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, about 2,650 people were killed in house fires.
If you haven’t had your annual inspection by a chimney sweep or furnace repairman, do get it now.
Clean dust buildup from dryer hoses, as well as lint from the dryer itself with each load.
Clean cooking appliances, particularly any grease buildup that could make a spark in a busy kitchen suddenly worse. Cooking accidents are the leading cause of home fires.
About 250 people a year are killed by appliance-related electrocution, Lindsay says. For more holiday electrical tips, see the ESFI’s homesafety.org. To see how prepared you are in the event of a fire, check this online fire quiz at Liberty Mutual’s befiresmart.com.
5. Clear ice dams from gutters; clear walks
Planning on having guests? Or spending more time trudging to and from and around the house? Load up on whatever gravel and rock salt you might need, and clear the walkways and gutters to prevent ice buildup.
You don’t want people injured, clearly, and you also don’t want to be found negligent. Laws vary by state, but generally homeowners are expected to take reasonable measures to maintain a safe environment. Snow may be a natural event; however, falling ice chunks resulting from gutters that you’ve failed to clear are not.
“Negligence can be an accident, but you can still be found liable if you fail to act as a reasonable person would,” says Maureen Lane, an insurance defense lawyer at the Boston firm Melick, Porter & Shea. “For example, if people come across your threshold all the time and you still string a cord across there,” you could be held liable.
In Massachusetts, a jury can divvy up the costs based on what percentage of negligence each party exhibited. In other words, don’t expect your guests to sidestep badly placed stuff or dodge falling decorations.
6. Evaluate your homeowner’s insurance
Speaking of clumsy guests, the party season is a good time to check just what your homeowner’s insurance does — and does not — cover if someone injures himself on your property.
Surveys by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners indicate that people often don’t understand their own policies. Ask: What are your damage limits? Does your policy include liability and medical payments coverage?
“Unfortunately, after an accident people realize the limits of the policy, and it’s often too late,” says Michael McRaith, director of insurance for the state of Illinois.
The same holds for renters. The landlord’s homeowner’s insurance isn’t going to cover a renter’s personal belongings or defend against a renter’s negligence. If you’re hosting a party or having guests, talk to the landlord’s insurance company and consider buying your own insurance.
7. Fall-proof the house
Appy, of the Home Safety Council, recalls one Christmas when a visiting older relative navigating a dark hallway fell down the stairs. She suffered only a strain, “but it could have been so much worse,” Appy says. “It was dark, she wasn’t at [her] home, she got up to go to the bathroom … we didn’t think about this, but there was no nightlight there. She got disoriented.”
Take extra care if you are expecting older guests, as falls are the leading cause of home fatalities.
Clear stairs, hallways and doorways of clutter. Consider installing railings along the stairs and grab bars in the bath.
“You can make some environmental changes that will really make your home safer,” Appy says.
8. Child-proof the house
Take the same cautious approach if children are expected, particularly if your house is not already child-proofed and relatives might be celebrating or preoccupied.
Most importantly, Appy says, put poisonous materials out of reach. Any supplies with words such as “caution,” “danger” or “warning” should be behind child-proof doors. Also, tinsel and decorations can choke small children with grabby fingers.
Learn about the safety hazards of rooms where small children will be sleeping, and how to keep toddlers out of bathrooms. For more information, see the room-by-room virtual safety tour at MySafeHome.org.
9. Check your smoke and CO detectors
Most residential fires start where everything’s cookin’, in the kitchen. Don’t start roasting if you haven’t verified the smoke detectors are installed correctly. Batteries should be replaced every six months, and there should be a detector on every floor outside bedrooms.
Homes should also have a carbon monoxide (CO) detector on each floor. Carbon monoxide, which can leak from dirty or malfunctioning heating equipment, is odorless and lethal.
If any of this sounds redundant, consider this: A recent survey by the National Fire Protection Association and the American Red Cross found:
- 48% of Americans plan to use alternative heating sources this winter to reduce their fuel bills;
- 36% of people with fireplaces reported they never cleaned or inspected their chimneys;
- 23% did not consider it essential to make sure someone is home when food is cooking on the stove;
- Half did not have a CO alarm; and
- 26% did not have a fire extinguisher in their home.
“Too many people are lackadaisical about fire these days,” says Jim Burns, past president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals. About 3,500 people die in fires every year in this country.
Space heaters account for three-quarters of the heating-fire deaths. Whether saving on heating oil or warming up a basement guest room, make sure to buy a new model with an automatic shut-off. Keep it three feet away from objects and never leave it unattended. For more, see these NFPA heating safety tips.
10. Get to know your fire extinguishers
“What happens around the holidays is you have a convergence of things that creates a fire risk,” says Lorraine Carli, an NFPA spokeswoman. “There are a lot of things occurring around a small period of time.”
Make sure you’ve got fire extinguishers near heating sources and passageways. The NFPA recommends at least one extinguisher per floor. Make sure family members know how to use them (and what not to do, such as not putting water on a grease fire).
11. Plan for partiers before the party
Hosts are responsible for their guests, not only morally but legally. In some states, hosts who have served alcohol can be held liable for the actions their guests take later.
Before you get sidetracked by the hors d’oeuvres planning, take a minute to review how the courts in your state can hold you responsible should a guest get a DUI on his way home from your party, and what your homeowner’s insurance will cover. It could serve as the extra motivation to keep any impaired guests off the road and may save lives.
SocialHostLiability.org, a private law firm’s site, has links to research and laws regarding the legal responsibility of hosts who serve alcohol. And Mothers Against Drunk Driving has tips on dealing with intoxicated guests.
12. Lock the doors; store the goods.
Thieves aren’t always so dumb, and they can be easily enticed by the sight of big boxes through the window. So, when you’re away from home for a while, do the usual: Put lights on timers; have a neighbor shovel the walk and pick up the mail; avoid displaying gifts in front windows; and always lock up.
While homeowner’s insurance policies cover theft, they typically carry a maximum. If need be, consider buying a personal articles policy to increase the limit, says Dick Luedke, a State Farm Insurance spokesman.