How safe is your home?

Written by Trudie McConnochie for Real Insurance.

Your home is your safe haven, but keeping it that way means being aware of common (and unexpected) risks. Here are some home-safety measures to take on board this summer and into the year ahead.

Practise poison safety

Medicines, cleaning products and garden chemicals are all common poisons that should be stored in locked cupboards at least 1.5m off the ground so kids can’t get to them. Be careful with dishwasher liquids and powders, which are corrosive – so keep kids away when you’re doing the dishes. Other poisons to keep out of reach include:

  • Beauty products and make-up
  • Alcohol and alcohol-based products – think: hand sanitiser, mouthwash, perfume, aftershave
  • Cleaning products – such as disinfectants, bleach and drain cleaners
  • Air-fresheners
  • Medicines – especially antidepressants, antihistamines and painkillers
  • Cigarette butts
  • Essential oils
  • Stationery products – think: paints and glues
  • Garage and garden products – such as kerosene, fertilisers, petrol, paints, weedkillers and pesticides

Prevent falls

The last place you want to spend time this summer is in the emergency department. Here’s some ways to keep your kids safe from falling, which is a common cause of childhood hospitalisation.

  • Make sure they wear a helmet when on bikes, scooters (and the like), and always supervise them closely.
  • Move furniture, beds and ‘climbable objects’ away from windows and balcony edges.
  • Make sure windows can’t be opened more than 12.5cm, and if they’re higher than 2m above the ground, they need window locks or latches.

Don’t fall victim to drowning

When you think of drowning tragedies in summer, the ocean probably comes to mind first, but swimming pools are the main location for drowning deaths among young Aussie kids, followed by bathtubs and spa pools. Other drowning hazards for very young children include buckets, eskies, fishponds and water tanks, so these should be emptied, covered or put away when you’ve got little ones around (including summer visitors).

Children need to be supervised around water, and gates to pool fences must be closed. It’s very easy to get distracted, but it’s crucial to never leave a child in the bath or any body of water, without an adult watching closely.

During summer social events, nominate a sober supervisor to make sure children are always being watched. 

“When a child drowns it is very quick and silent,” says Dr Soundappan. “Most people think they will hear or notice their child splashing around if they’re drowning but this simply isn’t true. This is why it’s so important for parents and carers to be within arm’s reach of children and keeping their full attention on them when around water.”

Think fire safety

In every fire that Superintendent Adam Dewberry from Fire + Rescue NSW has attended, the common theme is that the people were caught off guard – “let’s face it, no one expects a fire,” he says. That’s why making your home fire safe is so important. You might want to read The most common causes of house fires as well. 

Kitchens are often the starting point for fires, so it’s crucial to never leave cooking unattended – especially when you’re entertaining and can be easily distracted. Same goes for barbecues, he says, which must be supervised at all times.

“To make sure the gas bottle on your barbecue isn’t leaking, use a solution of water and detergent around the connectors – apply it and see if there’s any bubbles,” he says, adding, “No gas cylinders should be used if they’re out of date.”

Superintendent Dewberry’s other tips include:

  • Choose lithium ion batteries (used in appliances such as battery vacuums, kids’ toys, e-bikes) that meet Australian Standards. “Where I’m noticing problems – and this is through actual observations of fires – is where people are not using the correct battery for the appliance, or not using the correct charger,” he says.
  • Check your smoke alarms are working, and add extras if needed. “If you sleep with your door closed, or you have relatives sleeping with the door closed, I strongly recommend that you put a working smoke alarm in that bedroom as well.”
  • Don’t overload power boards
  • Have appliances serviced regularly by a licensed technician

Surprising household hazards

In recent years, awareness of the dangers of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) has been increasing. VOCs are gases that are emitted from certain common household items, potentially causing health issues, including breathing problems and even cancer. VOCs pollution can come from a range of household items such as air fresheners, printers, bleach, oven cleaners, floor polish, disinfectants and many more. Make sure you use these products only in well-ventilated spaces, use only small quantities that will be used up quickly (gases can be emitted from closed containers) and get rid of old or partially filled containers safely – check with your local council about correct disposal.

Other surprising household hazards to watch out for:

  • Button batteries - according to The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, button batteries found in remotes, toys, torches, hearing aids and kitchen scales are another huge safety risk for children. “Swallowing any button battery, old or new, can cause life-threatening injuries and even death, especially if it becomes stuck in the oesophagus,” says paediatric trauma surgeon Dr Soundappan Soundappan
  • Coins - keep small objects away from babies and young children. Anything smaller than a 20-cent coin is a choking hazard.
  • Kitchen sponges – they can absorb harmful bacteria that you can easily spread to other surfaces, so replace them frequently and clean sponges (while damp) by microwaving them for one minute.
  • Plastic containers – avoid heating food in plastic (think: takeaway containers) as some chemicals can leach into the food.
  • Pillows – they can harbour a range of bacteria, fungi and dust mite debris (which can cause allergic reactions), so wash and change your pillowcase every week.
  • Soft toysresearch has suggested that children exposed to indoor pesticides (think: fly sprays) could be at a greater risk of childhood diseases and cancers. When indoor pesticides are used, they can settle on soft toys and blankets, so wash kids’ stuffed toys regularly.