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Hidden Hazards

Trees, sidewalks, garage doors, gardening tools and even buckets are among items that may pose dangers in the home.

October 29, 2000|LEW SICHELMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most folks think of their homes as safe havens. But, according to the National Safety Council, of the 95,500 accidents that cost people their lives last year, 30,800--almost a third--occurred in the house.

Of course, many more people are hurt in accidents than are killed. But the most disabling injuries--those that cause at least a day missed from work--happen in the home more often than on the highway and in the workplace combined.

For homeowners who aren't injured, these mishaps often result in costly insurance claims and sometimes turn into lawsuits. The total cost for home-related injuries last year was $126 billion, according to the council.

According to the American Bar Assn., the courts in most states now hold property owners to the same standard: You have a duty to employ reasonable care in maintaining your property and to warn people of hazards. And it doesn't matter whether the injured party is a door-to-door salesman or a burglar.

The law doesn't expect you to anticipate every accident that may occur, the association says. Or to guarantee a visitor won't trip over his own feet or be hit by lightening. But it does expect you to exercise caution. Consequently, you have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect people from hazards you know or should know about.

Unfortunately, many homeowners are not doing a particularly good job of meeting these responsibilities, if what private home inspectors find when they examine houses on behalf of people thinking about buying them is any indication.

Kathleen Kuhn, a vice president at HouseMaster, a New Jersey-based chain of 345 franchises nationwide, says her examiners see all manner of what she calls "potential liability generators" in the course of performing more than 100,000 investigations a year. The hazards they see range from uneven sidewalks to loose carpeting, from scalding water to cracked glass in shower doors, from defective decks to diseased trees.

Here are some common potential hazards. Many of them are easy to overlook but they're also easy to fix:

Trees.

Insurers generally agree that you are not liable if a healthy tree is blown down and causes damage to a neighbor's property, a car parked in the street or someone walking by. But if the tree was diseased or otherwise weakened, says Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute, you could be considered to have been negligent and can be held liable.

The obvious solution here is to trim your trees and remove dead branches. If your prized liquidambar tree on your front lawn is on its last legs, put it out of its misery. Don't wait for it to fall over.

Sidewalks and drives.

Paved surfaces often buckle, develop potholes or crack. Sometimes the cement or asphalt simply deteriorates. In other instances, roots from trees planted years ago push one panel or section higher than another, making the surface uneven. Either way, the result can be the same: someone trips.

People also slip on leaves and debris, so clear your walks and drives as soon as possible after a storm.

Steps and handrails.

Broken or uneven steps and loose or missing handrails are invitations to disaster. If handrails are loose, tighten them; if they're missing, replace them.

Decks.

Anchored improperly, decks can pull away from the house and collapse. But the more likely danger is that someone will trip over a warped floor board. Even treated lumber warps. Also watch out for rot, especially in untreated wood, which can deteriorate very rapidly. If a rotten railing gives way, chalk up another statistic.

Buckets.

Large buckets, the kind used to wash cars or collect rainfall, and young children are a deadly combination. An estimated 50 children in the U.S. drown every year in 5-gallon buckets, many less than half full, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Of all buckets, the 5-gallon size presents the greatest hazard, the commission warns. At 14 inches high, it is about half the height of a young child. That, combined with its stability, makes it all but impossible for top-heavy infants and toddlers to free themselves when they fall in head-first. So put the buckets away immediately after you are finished with them.

Gardening equipment.

Also put away your gardening tools, hoses, ladders and other lawn-care equipment. Don't leave them around for some inquisitive youngster to play with or an adult to trip over.

Hazardous materials.

Keep flammable and volatile liquids capped and out of the reach of little ones. If containers are not tightly closed, potentially toxic vapors may escape. Also keep containers away from ignition sources. The safety commission has documented several cases in which gasoline stored as far as 10 feet from a water heater exploded.

Pools.

The dangers of swimming pools have been well-documented, but it is worth repeating: Nearly 1,100 people drowned at home in 1997, the safety council says.

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