Dear Mr. Electrician: My wife and I recently purchased our first house. It needs some work and we want to do as much of it as possible ourselves. How safe is it for us to do construction work in our home?
Answer: Know your limitations. If you have no experience with working on a house and no one to guide you, I would say tread lightly. It takes a certain amount of mechanical aptitude along with the proper knowledge and experience to safely work on a house successfully.
Safety is the first consideration. Professional trades people have knowledge and perhaps training in how to be safe. Some of that knowledge is derived from actual experiences with getting hurt. I have an OSHA 30 hour safety card, meaning that I went through OSHA’s approved construction safety training. However I do not consider myself an expert on safety.
I am constantly aware of unsafe practices and conditions on a job, but that doesn’t mean accidents won’t happen. You must get into a mind set of thinking about, and including safety when planning to do work around the house. Avoid unsafe short cuts. Read my list below. NOTE: Text links below go to applicable products on Amazon.com
Safety Considerations Doing Your Own Work
Use a stepladder when working on the ceiling. Do not stand on a pail, a chair, a countertop, a stack of milk crates, or the tub and toilet to perform work. One bad fall can change your life forever. I know that many households have step stools for daily use. I do not recommend that a step stool be used when working around your home. A four or five foot ladder should be used. Taller ladders for higher ceilings. Check the weight rating of a ladder before you purchase it.
Shut off the power at the circuit breaker when working on electrical circuits and appliances. In a normal situation, shutting off the wall switch may suffice, but you won’t know if the light fixture or appliance was wired correctly and safely until you actually work on it. Even with the circuit breaker off there is a possibility of current flowing on the neutral conductor due to it being shared on a multi-wire circuit or the wiring is not correct.
The safest thing to do is to shut the power off to the entire house using the main circuit breaker in your electrical panel. However even with the main breaker being off there is still a rare possibility that neutral current could still be flowing through your main electrical panel and grounding electrode connection. It is inconvenient to shut power off to the entire house, but it is better than getting electrocuted. Please note that I do not recommend that a novice work on electrical wiring. The potential for creating a shock hazard or starting a fire is too great. Some electrical problems created by amateurs don’t show up for months or years later.
Wear a dust mask or respirator to avoid breathing anything nasty. It is not a bad idea to also protect your head and hair from dust particles. Upon completion of the work remove your clothes and take a shower. When working with nasty smelling household cleaning liquids, paints, or other chemicals, wearing the proper respirator is important, especially in confined spaces such as bathrooms and closets. Open the windows. Run some fans.
Wear eye protection. It is very easy for something to get thrown into your eyes and cause permanent damage. Goggles are good for eye protection when doing some things. Face shields protect your whole face.
Use hearing protection when working around loud noises or using loud tools and equipment. Many of us cut our own lawns. You should use hearing protection when doing that with a gasoline powered mower. Leaf blowers also make a lot of noise.
You should not wear earphones or headphones and listen to music while doing construction work. You will not have the ability to hear a danger if music is playing in your ears. Much to the annoyance of co-workers and employees I prefer no radios on my jobs.
Wear work shoes. I realize that most of you do not own a pair of high back steel toe Red Wing work shoes like I do, but your feet can get injured when working. Going up and down a ladder is painful after a while for someone who does not work like this regularly. Protect your feet when working around the house.
Wear gloves to protect your hands from scratches and callouses. When working around live electricity you should use electrically insulated gloves with glove protectors. A face shield is also important to protect your eyes from an electrical explosion.
A hard hat is important if you are working where something can fall on your head. Bump caps are available for working with a possibility of bumping your head.
When using an electric powered tool, always plug it into a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI). This is especially important when working outdoors, in the basement, around water and water pipes, or in the garage. The concrete floor in a basement or garage is a good electrical ground path. If you were to come in contact with a live wire and another part of your body was in contact with concrete, you will get a shock or be electrocuted.
If you must go on the roof, use fall protection and have at least one other person standing by for emergency assistance. Study the use and operation of fall protection such as harnesses and safety ropes before you go up on the roof. If left hanging in a harness for more than a few minutes, permanent injury or death can occur. You must have an escape plan in place before working on the roof.
From the OSHA web site (OSHA.gov): “For construction operations, fall protection generally must be used at heights of six feet or greater. Falls are the leading cause of death in the construction industry. Fall protection can be accomplished through the use of guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems. Certain work site activities and/or locations may allow other methods (including, but not limited to positioning device systems, warning line systems, and controlled access zones) to be used.”
Jewelry must not be worn when working around the home. A ring can get caught on a power tool or a machine and rip your finger off. Necklaces can also get caught on something and choke you. Remove watches, rings, earrings, necklaces, and anything else that can caught on a tool or a machine. Electricians who wear jewelry are especially prone to accidents. Jewelry is a good conductor of electricity and can cause serious burns and sparks when in contact with live wiring.
If you have long hair, tie it up out of the way. After I graduated from high school I worked as an electrician’s helper for my father’s electrical contracting company that summer. I had long hair and was drilling holes with an angle drill above my head. Suddenly my hair got caught on the drill chuck and ripped a patch the size of my hand from my scalp. Fortunately I was able to react immediately and stopped using the drill which was now pulled into my head. After that I got all of my hair cut shorter and wore a headband to hide the bald spot until my hair grew back.
Wash your hands. I always bring hand wipes on the job. After going in dusty old attics or moldy basements I don’t want to catch some rare illness. Sometimes cutting holes in ceilings and walls reveals evidence of rodents. Wear a face mask also.
Have some ice packs available for when you are finished working. Apply one to the back of your neck as that will be a sore spot as a result of looking up for a long time. This is part of my nightly routine. Your hands and knees will probably hurt too.
To find out what happens when your body comes in direct contact with electricity, click here.
Read my post about holiday safety tips.