Don’t Be a Home Improvement Disaster


You walk into Home Depot or Lowe’s to pick up a lightbulb. Instead, you leave with some new flooring, a circular saw, a framing square, and big ideas about re-tiling your kitchen.

The problem? You’ve never done anything more than change a lightbulb by yourself.

Growing numbers of Americans are tackling do-it-yourself home improvement projects that once might have been left to professionals. One reason for the shift: Stores like Home Depot, along with TV shows on networks like HGTV or the DIY Network, make it look so easy.

And while it can be rewarding to re-tile your kitchen or even create your own home movie theater, novice do-it-yourselfers may also be putting themselves in harm’s way. The CDC recently reported that the number of consumers seeking emergency treatment at hospitals for nail gun injuries rose 200% from 1991 to 2005. The trend is likely due to the increased availability of nail guns at home hardware stores, but no sales data are available to confirm that, according to the CDC.

“I am pretty confident that the number of injuries sustained by do-it-yourselfers is going up,” says Nick Zenarosa, MD, the chief of emergency medicine at Baylor Medical Center at Garland in Garland, Texas.

And as an ER doctor, Zenarosa has pretty much seen it all: injuries from errant dust and debris, amputated fingers from sawing, facial injuries from nail guns, and broken bones from falling through a not-so-sturdy ceiling while laying insulation.

“What I would do before I embark on a do-it-yourself renovation project is to find someone and have them physically show me what to do,” he tells WebMD. “It’s tough sometimes to go to a class at a home improvement center because there is really no personalized attention.” Many chain stores such as Home Depot do offer group classes focusing on specific renovation projects.

While some people go the DIY route because it is more affordable, “it’s a lot more expensive to come to a trauma center because you cut corners and did not use safety equipment,” he says.

Do-It-Yourself Safety Tips

Here are some WebMD-approved tips on staying safe while you do-it-yourself:

Take your time. “Rushing is part of being unsafe,” Zenarosa says. “You are probably trying to cram a lot into a weekend and end up trying to do more than you should in one day.” Make sure you are adequately rested before you take on a new project, because the more fatigued you are, the more likely you are to get hurt.

Be saw savvy. “All it takes is a split second to lose your fingers,” Zenarosa says. “Remember to leave the safety guards on the saw and make sure that the plug is out when it is not in use. Never cut on unstable surfaces.”

Watch your eyes. “Wear some form of eye protection anytime you turn on a drill or any machine,” says Angela Mickalide, PhD, the director of education and outreach for the Home Safety Council, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit group that aims to prevent home-related injuries. “Look for a pair that has been impact-tested.”

Even wear safety glasses when you are hammering, says home improvement guru Barbara K, the founder of Barbara K Enterprises Inc., a New York City-based company that helps women do it themselves. “Bits of metal or other objects can fly in your face when you least expect it, even with the most basic do-it-yourself projects.”

Learn these ladder lessons. “Falling off of ladders is a leading cause of injury and fatalities whether they happen doing a do-it-yourself project, decorating a holiday tree, or trying to change the batteries in your smoke detector,” Mickalide says. There are 150,000 ladder-related injuries in the home every year, according to statistics compiled by the Home Safety Council.

“These injuries can be severe and [occur] mostly to legs, arms, and torso,” she says.

Though ladders can be dangerous, they are far safer than standing on a piece of furniture, chair, or bureau to get work done, she says. “You want to make sure the ladder is on level ground and the side locks are engaged,” she says. “Always face the ladder when you are climbing it.”

Remember the four-to-one rule, she says. “For each 4 feet of distance between the ground and the upper point of contact of the ladder, such as the wall or roof, move the base of the ladder out 1 foot,” she says. “Also, wear rubber sole shoes when doing work on a ladder to help prevent slipping.”

Cover your hands. “You may need heavy-duty rubber gloves depending on the project or even lighter-weight gloves, but either way wear gloves so you can take them off when you are through working and your hands are clean,” Mickalide says.

Practice painting prowess. “If the paint is flammable or combustible, make sure you open the doors and windows to create ventilation,” Mickalide says. “Eliminate flame sources by turning off pilot lights on the stove,” she says. “Don’t relight the stove until the room is free of fumes.”

Remember to wear a mask when you are painting, sanding, or using solvents because of the potentially toxic fumes, Barbara K adds. When you are painting, “use a drop cloth made out of something other than plastic because it’s easy to slip and fall on plastic,” she warns. Also, be sure there is good ventilation in the area.

Establish a kid-free zone. “Before you start a project, tell kids and other adults that what you are doing is potentially hazardous and they need to stay away,” says Mickalide.

Read the instructions. Sounds simple enough, but many people just don’t do it, says Barbara K. “The manufacturers take the time to write these instructions and people throw them out. The consumer should take the time to read the instructions before they use any product or tool, even if they have used it in the past.”

Go green. “If you choose eco-friendly paints and materials, which are becoming increasingly available, they are nontoxic and thus easier to dispose of in a safe way so they are safer for the environment and safer for you and your family,” says Robin Friedman, founder of EarthLove, a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based company that is devoted to helping consumers live greener each day.