Property: Accidents will happen

DIY is a risky business. So if you feel the urge to improve your home do it with care, warns Caroline Green
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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be nice if bank holiday weekends were spent sipping Pimm's and relaxing in the garden. But for most of us thoughts inevitably turn to those jobs around the house that we managed to ignore all winter.

Unfortunately, it seems the road to the casualty department is paved with good DIY intentions: this is the peak time of the year for hammered thumbs, falling off ladders and other injuries associated with "home improvement".

Tomorrow DIY accidents are likely to soar, according to the Department of Trade and Industry's Safety Awareness Campaign. Peter Manditch, a DTI spokesman says: "On any given Monday in the year there are about 600 accidents like these across the country, but at Easter and the May bank holidays it shoots up to 1,300."

Aside from the holidays, late spring is generally the time when people seem to take up their power tools and paintbrushes with a vengeance, according to David Jenkins, product safety adviser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa). "I suspect it's all down to the psychological influence of increased light intensity and longer days," he says. "We're just more switched on to change at this time of year and there's a feeling of revitalisation that spurs us into action."

The trouble is, it often ends in tears. The accident statistics make pretty grim reading. Every week 3,500 people are treated in hospital for DIY-related accidents. Falling off ladders causes 40,000 hospital cases a year, injuries from sharp instruments (including Stanley knives and screwdrivers) 20,000 a year, and hammers clock up 12,000 accidents. There are plenty of fatalities. Around 70 people every year die from accidents associated with DIY. One 38-year-old man died from electrocution while trying to mend his washing machine; another man using a chair to hang wallpaper fell off and suffered fatal head injuries.

One person a week dies from falling off a ladder or stepladder. Accidents are usually a result of over-reaching, getting too high up, or not having the ladder on level ground.

"People often use the wrong or old equipment, or simply don't follow common sense," says Mr Manditch. "They seem to think 'it will never happen to me'." Rospa and the DTI say one of the main causes of DIY accidents is a lack of proper preparation before starting. Not wearing the right protection, leaving jobs half finished, and letting children or pets get in the way are also big "no-nos".

The garden can also be a hazardous place, causing 50,000 injuries every year. Accidents with lawnmowers come top at 5,000; there are even 2,000 accidents involving flowerpots. One precaution you can take for both inside the home and in the garden is to buy an electrical circuit breaker called an RCD - a residual current device - which will stop you getting a shock even if you manage to run over the electric cable with your strimmer or accidentally drill into your power supply. All houses built since 1985 have these fitted to sockets by law, but you can buy adapters from any DIY shop.

All very sensible advice, but although a lot of accidents obviously come down to stupidity or carelessness, is it really all our fault? Shouldn't the people selling us the DIY supplies do more to get the message across?

Big DIY shops are pretty hot on safety, according to Mr Jenkins. B&Q and Homecare both offer lots of safety leaflets and have trained staff on hand to deal with any queries but Mr Jenkins believes safety isn't considered enough at the design stage by the manufacturers of DIY products.

"Take ladders for example," he says. "These days they're made with lightweight materials such as aluminium alloys and I suspect they are not as robust as they used to be.

"We're trying to get the message across into schools," he continues. "We want to teach people how to be able to assess risk variables. I think there's a fundamental flaw in the education process that feeds right the way through to the designers of new tools."

Black and Decker begs to differ; its spokesman says that the company's investment in cordless power tools plays a big part in increasing safety. Mr Manditch, of the DTI, doesn't share Mr Jenkins' view either. "It's not down to manufacturers," he says. "Accidents are down to individuals forgetting to pay sufficient attention to what they're doing and paying the price."

Perhaps the best solution is to pay someone else to do it and reach for the Pimm's.

How to avoid bank holiday accidents

q Plan ahead and anticipate what you're going to need further down the line. Buy everything in advance and know what you are supposed to do with it.

q Follow instructions to the letter.

q Make sure you have all the right equipment including any protective clothing (in particular goggles if you're doing any drilling or anything that could result in a nasty eye injury).

q Tidy up as you go along.