Unsafe Household Habits that Put Your Home at Risk

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Don’t let your famous last words be “but I’ve always done it this way!”

We all want a safe and comfortable home life. But with busy schedules and established routines, it’s easy to fall into comfortable but unsafe habits. Protect your home and appliances from fire and water damage, and yourself from injury, by developing good household safety routines.

For instance, don’t toss the manuals! Common consumer products, such as appliances, tools and personal care products, should come with a user manual that includes safety advisories. After you purchase one, take a few minutes to read it, then file it in a safe place for future reference.

“They really do contain some good tips to help keep one safe, as well as extending the useful life of the product,” says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, which requires that most consumer products bearing its certification label include a manual.

Covering a range of household safety issues, this article will show you how to:

  • Use certain household cleaning and washing chemicals more safely.
  • Take precautions with electrical cords and other fire-hazard items.
  • Purchase a kitchen garbage disposer and operate it in a safely.
  • Safely operate a portable electric power drill.
  • Make best use of a locked fireproof safe for your home.

Chemical Hazards

If a chemical is designed to clean surfaces or clothes, then it’s probably not designed to clean your body. Protect yourself when using them.

Don’t mix the cleansers

Resist the temptation to mix bleach with another cleaning product to create the “perfect” heavy-duty solution. Bleach produces a toxic gas that can sicken or kill, when combined with ammonia or acids. Products that contain either include:

  • Vinegar
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Glass, window and oven cleaners
  • Toilet and drain cleaners
  • Dish washing detergents and rinses
  • Lime, calcium and rust removers
  • Brick and concrete cleaners
  • Insecticides
  • Paints

Add urine to the list, including from animals. So, be careful when cleaning litter boxes or pet puddles.

Don’t wash your chemicals

It’s tough getting your work clothes clean. It’s also hazardous, unless you do it right. Fabric soaked with cooking oil, gasoline, woodworking oils, household or industrial cleansers, stains or other volatile chemicals can spontaneously ignite and start a fire.

To keep your shirts from flaming out, if there are any chemicals present besides your regular laundry soaps:

  • Wash the load twice, to remove as much of the chemicals as you can
  • Hang them out to dry instead of using a dryer
  • If you need the dryer, use the lowest heat setting and a cool-down cycle
  • Never leave damp fabric sitting in a warm dryer drum, even if your clothing is free of chemicals

Fire hazards

Speaking of clothes dryers, did you know that lint is flammable? The leading cause of home fires involving dryers is the failure to keep them clean, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Here’s what you do:

  • Sweep up any visible lint, including behind the machine
  • Never run the dryer with a missing or clogged trap
  • Clean the lint trap after each use
  • After using fabric softeners, wash the trap with warm, soapy water
  • After washing the trap, dry it completely before reinstalling
  • Keep the exhaust vent clear
  • Have a professional clean the ducts and dryer every eighteen months

Don’t neglect the stove

Who hasn’t tried to save time by running errands or ironing a little laundry while chicken legs sizzle on the grill? Cooking ranks at the very top of causes of home fires and injuries. Play it safe by:

  • Staying in the house while baking, roasting or boiling
  • Staying in the kitchen while frying, grilling or broiling
  • Using a timer to remind you that dinner is still cooking
  • Never cooking when you’re sleepy

Don’t wrap electrical cords

Electrical cords may look sort of like rope or string, but in fact they are precision instruments with delicate components.

Don’ wrap cords tightly around any object. It will trap heat that melts the insulation. This is especially true for an iron or other heat-producing appliance.

It can also break the wiring, shorting out the appliance or even initiating an electrical arc that sets it on fire. For similar reasons, never:

  • Place furniture legs or other heavy objects on cords
  • Cover them with carpets or rugs
  • Step on them
  • Staple them to walls

Don’t overuse extension cords

One of the handiest tools you can own, electrical extension cords also cause approximately 3,300 residential fires annually, according to Electrical Safety Foundation International. To protect yourself:

  • Purchase one rated for the amount of power that it needs to pull
  • Use it on a temporary basis only and disconnect after use
  • If it feels hot or appears damaged, disconnect it
  • Don’t run it inside of ceilings or walls
  • Don’t place it where people can trip over it

Learn more about fire protection when using chimneys, bonfires and space heaters.

Garbage Disposer Safety

Have you ever stared at your fingers while listening to the kitchen garbage disposer grind the leftovers into pulp and wondered “what if it was me?”

Go With the Batch

When shopping a new one, the safest design is called “batch-feed,” according to Consumer Reports. Before turning it on, you must load in the food waste and then seal the sink drain with a stopper. While it’s running, the food stays inside of the disposer and your fingers stay out.

The other basic design, “continuous-feed,” is not as safe because it allows you to load waste into the disposer while it’s turned on and grinding.

Handle with care

If you need to remove an object from the inside of the disposer, follow these steps:

  • Turn it off and ether unplug it or turn off the circuit breaker.
  • Put on a pair of safety glasses.
  • Shine a flashlight into the disposer.
  • Extract the object with tongs, skinny pliers, a coat-hanger or another grabbing device, instead of you hands.
  • You shouldn’t try to extract it with your hands, but if you do, wear safety gloves to protect them from the blades.
  • After extraction and if the disposer is hot, give it a few minutes to cool down.
  • Turn it back on and flush any remaining debris with cold water.

Some models may also have a reset button, jam-clearing tool or other devices for clearing jams safely. Consult your owners manual or contact the manufacturer for more information.

Never place non-food items or any non-biodegradable items in the disposer, especially if they are combustible.

Dispose of the germs

A clean kitchen is a safe kitchen, but the disposer is typically covered by a film of bacteria. At least once a month, you follow these steps:

  • Make sure that the machine is turned off and will stay off
  • Place some chlorinated cleansing powder on a long angled brush
  • Scrub the inside walls and underside of the rubber splash guard
  • Let the chlorine sit until you use the disposer again, so that it has time to kill the bacteria

Another way to at least partially clean the grinding area is to run it with a small amount of ice inside. If you do, the place a stopper over the drain and proceed with care. Otherwise, loose bits of who-knows-what might come flying out of the sink.

Cats and kids

Do you have small children? Kids are naturally curious about how their home works, plus some will even use a garbage disposer to hide toys. Keep the drain covered and installing a child-proof switch.

Do you have cats? Some like to hop onto kitchen counters and play with the appliances. To prevent your feline friend from accidentally turning on the disposer and then falling in, place a safety cover over the on-off switch.

Some models come with a pre-installed safety cover. If yours doesn’t, take a photo of the switch to your local hardware store and ask for one.

Consider composting

Would you rather do away with the disposer altogether, or at least minimize its use? Start a compost pile as a smart and ecological alternative. Composting allows you to recycle corn husks, artichokes and other fibrous food waste that disposers aren’t designed to handle anyway.

Power Drill Safety

Just purchased a brand-new portable electric power drill? Hauling the old one out of the closet for a special project? A drill is a precision instrument with a lot of power. You want to put some nice holes in your wall, not your hand. Let’s look at how to operate it safely.

Dress for success

Drilling can throw up shards, debris and even pieces of a broken drill bit. Wear either safety glasses or goggles, plus an optional face shield.

Ear mufflers are also important, because drills are noisy machines. They averaging 95 decibels, about the same as a quiet motorcycle or a noisy lawnmower, according to the Center for Hearing and Communication.

Don’t wear anything that can get caught in the drill, such as a tie, loose hair or clothing, or jewelry. Also tie back long hair or shove it into a cap.

Even after securing your hair, remain aware of where it is at all times. Don’t assume that it’s out of the way just because you can’t see it. A spinning power drill literally scalped a woman’s head after her ponytail got caught in the device.

Watch the fingers and toes

Don’t place your hands near a moving chuck or bit, and resist the temptation to use your fingers to stop them from rotating. That’s what the off-switch is for.

The same goes for other body parts. A construction worker nailed himself to a roof when he dropped his drill, sending the rotating bit straight through his foot.

Always maintain a firm footing and balance. When drilling on a ladder or scaffold, brace and position yourself carefully. Don’t walk around with a running drill; instead, turn it off and keep your finger off the power switch.


A small power drill uses thirty times as much electricity as is necessary to kill a person, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Don’t operate one where wet or muddy conditions can compromise your safety.

Before commencing work, inspect behind or inside of the “stock” (the surface that you will drill into) for wires and water lines. If you can’t see inside or if you’re not sure of what’s in there, use a scanning device.

In addition:

  • Make sure that it is turned off before plugging it in, inserting a battery, changing bits or making adjustments.
  • Use only batteries, battery packs and battery re-chargers specified by the manufacturer.
  • Don’t carry it by the power cord. Before drilling, check the cord for fraying or damage. When drilling, keep it clear of the cutting area.

Bits and Pieces

If you need to change bits, be careful when removing one. Bits are sharp and, after use, can be hot to the touch. Also, never operate a power drill if flammable fumes are present.

If the bit binds itself (gets stuck) into the stock and refuses to spin, the motor can make the drill itself spin out of control. Before you begin:

  • If you think that the bit is in danger of binding, don’t use the “lock-on” feature, which locks the trigger in “on” position.
  • If possible, clamp the stock in place, so that it won’t start spinning either. Never drill with one hand while holding the stock down with the other, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Then, while you are drilling:

  • If the bit won’t penetrate properly into an object or the rotation slows down, don’t try to force it in. You can damage the bit or even overheat the motor.
  • Instead, try easing on the pressure to see if the drill starts cutting more smoothly. If that doesn’t work, try a different bit. If the bit binds into the stock, let go of the trigger immediately, then unplug the drill.

What you should — or shouldn’t — place in a fireproof safe

When it comes to storing your household possessions, you have a lot of choices. Safe deposit boxes secure them in a bank vault, self-storage units offer a lot of space, and your attic or basement keeps them close at hand.

But for valuable personal items that you may need to access quickly, a locked fireproof safe installed in your home offers certain advantages.

Whatever you need quickly

Don’t let a closed-up bank branch hold up a last-minute business trip, critical legal matter or emergency medical crisis. Keep documents that you need routinely in a home safe, not your safe deposit box, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.

For instance, if you have a “power of attorney” that allows you to make emergency health decisions for a sick relative, you’ll want 24-hour access to it. Other examples include jewelry that you often wear, insurance documents and Social Security cards.

Keep your original will or trust in your home safe and give the combination to its executor. If you place it in a safe deposit box, then after you die your bank might be legally required to “seal” the box — preventing anyone from opening it — until a court appoints its own executor, according to the American Academy of State Planning Attorneys.

Whatever burns

The main purpose of a home safe is to protect your valuables from fire. Examples of critical items that can burn include insurance policies, wills, pictures and small amounts of cash, according to Joe Cortie, president of the Safe and Vault Technicians Association.

Not all safes are fire-resistant, so check for a fire rating on the product label or literature. “Household safes generally have UL certification because consumers look for that,” says UL’s John Drengenberg.

UL fire-tests safes in a furnace to measure their internal temperature. If it rises no more than 350 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s rated for storing paper items. A lower 150 degrees qualifies it for photographic film and magnetic tape, or 125 degrees for computer storage media.

Even then, they provide only a temporary shield against extreme heat. “If the fire will last longer than an hour even on the better home safes, you can probably kiss your belongings goodbye,” says Cortie.

Nothing that’s irreplaceable

Curiously, home safes aren’t very good a deterring burglaries. “Most are small enough that a thief can just pick it up and walk away with it,” say Drengenberg.

Even a large model bolted to the ground is vulnerable. Burglars can use common garage tools like sledgehammers and crowbars to break open a 300 pound safe.

Store hard-to-replace items in a safe deposit box at the bank, which is more secure than a home safe, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Examples include family keepsakes, birth certificates, photographic negatives, your car title and the deed to your home.

In addition, if you have photos or videos of your home for insurance purposes, the last place you want them stored during a house fire is in the house.

Waterproof containers

Yes, you really should store storage containers in a storage safe. While a good model should also be water resistant, don’t bet the farm on its reliability during a flood or similar event. To protect your documents from water damage, place them in watertight plastic containers or bags before locking them away.

Shop for quality

Spend your money on a good safe that meets your individual needs, advises Cortie. “Don’t buy the cheapest safe you can and expect it to do everything,” he says. “Take your time and talk to different experts before you waste your money on something that won’t do the job for you.” The Safe and Vault Technician’s Association has a searchable online database of technicians in your area.

David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.