Unsafe at home: Accidents in dwellings are common
By Harry Jackson Jr.
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Monday, Oct. 23 2006
Leslie Foran’s voice cracks as she describes hugging a mother whose child had died in an accident.
Attending gatherings and listening to tales about relatives who are gone or
disabled because of accidents is the part of her job — executive director of
the Safety Council of Greater St. Louis — that she never gets used to.
On this day Foran has attended memorial services at two high schools for
students killed in accidents.
“It’s devastating,” she says.
“When you have to hug a mom who has lost her son. … They don’t come back. You
can’t get them back; once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Foran finds such moments heartbreaking and frustrating.
Families who want to get healthy eat lean meat and more fruits and vegetables.
They join a gym, jog, do yoga, practice Pilates and punch heavy bags. They will
let the doctor poke, pry and pinch to prevent diseases.
But they won’t search their homes for accidents that are waiting to happen;
they won’t stress wearing seat belts or brainwash their children to drive
safely. They won’t tell Dad the ladder is in an unsafe position; they won’t
inspect the home for the extension cords and throw rugs that will send Grandma to the floor.
“People see accidents as a fact of life and there’s not much they can do about it,” Foran says. “But that’s not always true.”
Experts agree that safety should rank alongside concern about heart disease,
cancers and diabetes. They point to many statistics:
— Accidents rank fifth among the causes of death in the United States,
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2003, accidents killed 108,694 people.
— Accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for people younger than 34 and the seventh-most frequent cause of death for people older than 65, according to the CDC.
— The National Safety Council’s 2003 statistics report 61,206 accidental
deaths, and that doesn’t include the 44,757 deaths from traffic accidents.
“And that doesn’t take into account the injuries, disabilities and disruption
caused by accidents,” Foran says.
Costly to families
Experts say they’re frustrated because of all the killers that assault health,
accidents are the most preventable.
The first place to start is the home, they say.
“What’s important about accidents is they can be avoided,” says Joanne Langen, public health nurse and assistant professor of nursing at St. Louis University. "They’re the most avoidable health issues we face.
“We find a lot that people don’t know what they don’t know.”
Often when she and her nursing students visit homes, they find extension cords across the floor, candles near flammable objects, space heaters near drapes, stairs covered with objects, poisonous chemicals left where children can find them, or hot cooking utensils hanging where anyone could bump into them and scatter scalding liquid.
Many agencies, from fire departments that push for smoke detectors to health departments that check for lead in paint, crusade to promote safety in the home. Still, people regularly die from fires, falls, poisoning, drowning and
The Home Safety Council advocates against accidents in the home because they are costly both to the country and to families, Langen says.
“But people tend not to appreciate the severity of injury in our country; it’s
really epidemic,” says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council.
"Unintentional injuries are accepted as a natural consequence of living, when
in fact we know that these injuries are predictable and preventable.
“Home injuries alone, we’re looking at almost 20,000 deaths and more than 21
million medical visits. And those are the ones we know about because they’ve
been reported to an emergency room or other medical facility.”
No one is immune
Experts say the only remedy that seems to work is education. Foran’s agency has several programs for people from preschool to adult:
— SafeLife Kids teaches Internet safety, personal safety, violence prevention, decision making, water safety, emergency medical situations, pedestrian safety, in-home safety and outdoor recreational safety to children in fourth grade.
— Safetyville USA creates a 1/3-scale neighborhood and teaches children how to be safe in their communities.
— The Safety Council has an annual safety fair here. This year’s event
attracted several thousand visitors.
“It starts when they’re little,” Foran says.
Most accidental deaths in the home happen to young children and older people, and public enemy No. 1 for injuries and deaths is stairs.
“With the little ones, they tend to be falling from heights,” Appy says.
"They’re falling down the stairs, falling from playground equipment. There are
ways to protect your child from that, using baby gates at the top and bottom of the stairs and making sure playground equipment is protected by 9 to 12 inches of soft surfacing.
“These injuries have lifelong consequences not only for the person, but for the family.”
In addition, the National Safety Council reports that in 2003, falls killed
17,229 people. That included 3,896 falls on flat surfaces and 1,588 on stairs
The experts say home safety can be improved with some simple changes.
First, the person in charge of keeping track of the family’s health should keep
an eye on home safety. And the first thing that person should do is drop the
attitude that he or she is invulnerable to fatal or debilitating injuries.
“We see deaths in fire every day, and we say, ‘That’s sad, but it won’t happen to me,’” Appy says. “It can happen to you. You don’t live in a bubble.”
Next, do a home inspection to check for dangers.
“People today think they justdon’t have time, but they need to do this,” she says.
Top killers in the home. Prevention is possible for each accident.
Overall, 54 percent of fatal accidents happen in the home. These 2003
statistics come from the National Safety Council.
A large percentage involved people older than 65. People older than 75 have the largest percentage of fatal falls. Experts expect this to rise in coming years as baby boomers navigate their 60s and beyond.
Prevention: Make your home a safe place to walk. Stairs are the biggest
culprits. Next are throw rugs and extension cords, then carpeting, then slick
For older people, keep the stairs clear. Put nonskid mats on the steps. Paint
the stairs in contrasting colors, especially the lips of the stairs, so they
can be seen more clearly. Use nonskid tile in the kitchen and bathrooms, and
install grab bars at a proper height for the person who needs them.
For children, use baby gates to block stairs. Try to buy rounded-edged tables and furniture.
Many agencies say they have difficulty figuring out which poisoning deaths are unintentional. Children are the No. 1 victims, but discerning accidents from drug overdoses and suicide attempts is difficult.
Nevertheless, about 2.4 million emergency rooms visits each year are due to
Prevention: Lock up medicine and household chemicals. Children, especially, can grab and gulp before knowing something is harmful.
“Don’t tell children that their medicine is candy,” says Joanne Langen, public
health nurse and assistant professor of nursing at St. Louis University. “Some medicine is sweet for children, but when they think of candy they may go after the medicine.”
Smoke inhalation killed more people than fires did. For children younger than
15, fires in the home are the No. 1 cause of injury-related deaths. This
includes fires from space heaters, knocked-over candles and other things that cause flames.
In 2003, someone died in a fire about every two hours, and someone was injured every 29 minutes; four out of five fire deaths in 2003 occurred in homes, while 14,075 people were injured.
Prevention: Smoke detectors are vital. About half of the deaths occurred in
homes with no fire detectors. Check them, test them and upgrade them. Get
interconnected smoke detectors so they all go off when one goes off. Get
children fire-retardant pajamas.
Fire extinguishers are inexpensive, $10 to $100 at most home improvement or hardware stores. They are heavily monitored by the Underwriters Laboratory, and the size determines the price. Buy one for the kitchen, one for the living
room, one for the hallway and one for your bedroom.
Choking and suffocation
They are especially dangerous for young children. Choking, suffocation and
strangulation are the leading cause of unintentional injuries that result in
death for children younger than 1.
Prevention: Supervise what and when young children are eating. Make sure they are placed properly in bed. Inspect their toys for pieces that can break off and clog their windpipes.
About a third were in bathtubs. About 280 were children younger than 5 in
shallow wading or inflatable pools.
Prevention: Never leave a child alone in a bathtub, an inflatable pool, or even on the toilet. A one-minute phone call that takes you away from the child can prove fatal for the child.
While they don’t happen in the home, traffic accidents are still a family
problem, considering the disabilities, expense and heartache.
Prevention: Set an example for your children. Whatever you do in front of them, they’re going to do, including your traffic habits. Second, start young.
Brainwash your children about safe driving habits such as not using a cell
phone while driving, not speeding, not drinking and driving, and so forth.
Sources: Joanne Langen, public health nurse and assistant professor of nursing at St. Louis University; National Safety Council; Safety Council of Greater St. Louis; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention