One recent morning -- about 7:30 to be exact -- after working too late the night before and running out of gas on the way, Randy arrived at the city dump to unload a truck full of carpentry debris. This particular dump, with its stunning, panoramic views of the harbor, flocks of sea gulls wheeling overhead and large bulldozers reordering the landscape, is a distracting place any time.
He'd thrown a lot of stuff out already, and the next item in the truck was a large bag of hardened concrete. He tossed it onto the pile. It landed on one end of a 2 by 6 that had been used as a concrete form, rather like a child jumping on the end of a seesaw. The 2 by 6 flipped into the air and crashed back to the truck, cracking Randy in the head and whacking his right arm.
It took him a minute to figure out where the attack had come from.
He's still got a lump on his head and a bruise on his arm.
Was there some way to avoid this mishap? In truth, accidents and construction just seem to go together. Fortunately, most are minor, like this one. Some can be far more serious -- a fellow rehabber some years ago nearly sliced off his thumb with a radial-arm saw, and a contractor got an unintended nose job from a window that didn't stay casually propped in place.
But there are ways to minimize hazards while you're working, on the job site and off.
First, be in a position to concentrate. This was Randy's problem; he should have delayed his dump run until he was more awake. To avoid lapses that lead to injury, you need to be alert, awake and paying attention. If you're hot, tired or hungry, take a break. If you're not at your best, do something simple to keep the job going -- sweeping, for instance -- and come back when you are fresh.
Protect yourself by wearing proper clothing and safety gear. You need heavy shoes, preferably work boots with steel shanks. Tennis shoes won't keep a nail from coming through, and they don't offer much protection if you drop something heavy on your foot. You also need clothes that fit; clothes that flap around can get caught in things. Find a comfortable pair of safety glasses and wear them as much as possible, especially when sawing, nailing, or running a drill. If you're doing a lot of work with a noisy tool, get ear protectors and wear them. (If you're making a lot of noise, then stop and find your head ringing, you need ear protectors.)
If you rent a tool, a chain saw or pneumatic nailer, for instance, get thorough instructions in how to operate it before you leave the store. Contractor-type tools may be far more powerful than the consumer tools you're used to, so practice a little until you feel comfortable with them. On your own tools, be sure blades are sharp and fastened securely, cords aren't frayed or tangled. If you're changing a blade, unplug the tool.
If you're working outside, plug all electrical tools into a ground-fault-protected receptacle. Don't use power tools in the rain or when you're standing in water. It sounds simplistic, but Randy knows pros who've gotten a shock this way.
Keep the work site clean. Don't let scrap lumber accumulate around the saw table, remove scraps of cinder block, hand tools, brooms, rakes, shovels, hoes and other items that could give you a whack if stepped on. Spend some time every day straightening up, putting tools away, stacking lumber, collecting trash. (Buy contractor trash bags at the home-improvement center and keep filling them; you may be able to save some dump fees by using bags that can be hauled away with the garbage. Reasonable garbage collectors, however, will not take bags that contain 200 pounds of old plaster or the dismembered parts of a coal furnace. If your locale has bulk trash pickups, you may be able to get rid of large pieces of debris that way.)
Pay attention to safety warnings on ladders: Don't stand on the top step of a stepladder; don't go above the "safe working height" on an extension ladder. Use a ladder stabilizer (a sort of outrigger device) at the top of an extension ladder; it spreads the weight out at the top and makes the ladder more stable. You can also drive a stake between the tops and bottoms of an extension ladder to make it more stable; if there's anything to tie it to, tie the top to a part of the structure. In some cases, scaffolding may be safer than a ladder -- if you're painting a house, for instance. Homemade scaffolding is notoriously dangerous. Don't try to build it yourself -- you can rent it at reasonable prices.
Finally, collect the items for a good first-aid kit, pack them together in a box and keep it on hand when you're working: An assortment of plastic or fabric bandage strips, gauze pads and rolls in various sizes; surgical tape; scissors; alcohol pads; antibiotic ointment; a clean towel or a clean roll of paper towels.
A lot of accidents happen when people are in a hurry, haven't taken the time to clean up, or simply don't have their minds on the job. Working safely doesn't require special skills; but it does require common sense.
Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.
Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.