Doctor On The House: If you want to cause a disaster then do it yourself

Safety laws don't apply to the public, so we're free to injure ourselves in the name of DIY, says Jeff Howell

EVERY week 3,500 British people need hospital treatment for DIY- related injuries, according to government statistics. I don't know where this figure stands in the overall scheme of things - such as deaths from preventable diseases in developing countries, for example - but it sounds like a lot of crutches and stitches to me.

Building work is one of the most dangerous occupations. Most deaths and serious injuries result from falls - either falling off something, or something falling on your head. In recent years workers have been persuaded, by a combination of threats and education, to wear hard hats. Steel toe- capped boots are also making something of a comeback, though more through their adoption as a fashion item than any sudden outbreak of good sense, which remains in short supply.

Hence, while it is illegal to throw things from scaffolding, every day you can see untrained building workers tossing roof slates and bricks into skips or on to the ground from great heights. Often this happens next to pavements or busy roads, and I am always surprised there are not more accidents. As an experienced construction site worker I never walk under other people's scaffolding, and I recommend you don't either.

Site work is now covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act, but of course this only applies to People At Work; as a general member of the public you are free to engage in whatever life-threatening activities you like. So while campaigners for voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill have found themselves thwarted at every legal turn, any able-bodied person still has the legal right to run up an unsecured ladder and plunge back down again.

Another example of this legal inconsistency is that a plumber installing a gas boiler in your home must belong to the Council of Registered Gas Installers (Corgi), but there is nothing to stop you buying the same boiler yourself, putting it in, and accidentally gassing your family or the neighbours. UK residents have complete freedom to gas, electrocute and bludgeon themselves or others to death in the name of DIY.

If anyone thinks I'm proposing a "nanny state" then let me hasten to say you're dead right. I'm well in favour of it; a large percentage of the population need protecting from themselves, and the rest of us need protecting from them.

On the home maintenance front, many people do not realise that you are not supposed to work while standing on a ladder. Ladders are for providing access to "safe working platforms" - scaffolding or tower scaffolds - not for balancing on while you lean over to paint the windows.

Clearly there are small jobs for which the hire of a tower could be inappropriate, but you should always treat ladders with the greatest respect. They must be secured at the top - a rope passed through a window and tied to a table leg is better than nothing - and at the bottom with a stack of bricks or bag of sand. Ladders on lawns are a particular hazard: once you start climbing one leg can easily sink in, throwing you sideways.

Ladder accidents kill 50 people every year - don't be one of them.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: Jeff@doctoronthehouse.demon.co.uk

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