Ladders, electrical wires, power tools and chemicals all have the potential to cause you or your family harm when you are doing jobs around the home. We look at what you can do to keep safe.

Tools

You need to protect yourself from injury caused by noise, dust, sharp edges, dangerous mechanisms, and chemicals when using tools. Safety equipment for hand, eye, ear, and breathing protection are all readily available from hardware stores and specialist safety equipment companies.

General tips for working safely with tools include:

  • Keep tools well maintained with good cutting edges.
  • Only use them for their correct purpose.
  • Use a dust mask when cutting or sanding.
  • Use eye protection.
  • Wear ear muffs.
  • Always use a residual current device (see below) when using power tools.

Working with electricity

Follow these guidelines when working with electricity:

  • Always use a residual current device (see below) when using electrical equipment outdoors, or close to any damp areas.
  • Always turn off the power before replacing fuses, light switches or other power outlets.
  • Take extreme care when working outside around overhead or underground power lines – disconnect the power if working near supply lines.
  • Avoid overloading circuits by having too many tools or appliances running at the same time.
  • Inspect appliance cords and extension leads for signs of damage - check the plug and socket for loose/frayed connections and poor cord anchorages.

You can do a limited amount of electrical work yourself, but for all other work use a licensed electrician.

Residual current devices

Residual current devices (RCDs) have superseded isolating transformers. An RCD constantly monitors the electric current flowing along a circuit. If someone touches a live wire or faulty appliance, providing a route for the electricity to flow through them to the ground, the RCD senses the loss of current and quickly shuts off the electricity to reduce the chance of serious injury. These are very useful when using power tools where it is easy to accidentally slice through the power cord. Always use an RCD when using electrical equipment outside and always test the device before you start - press the test button to make sure it's working properly.

RCDs are available in several forms: switchboard RCDs that are wired into your switchboard; those permanently wired in as a wall socket; or portable RCDs such as those built into extension leads. They are readily available from hardware and electrical outlets.

Since January 2003, all new circuits which start at the switchboard in domestic buildings (such as your home) are required to have RCD protection. These can only be installed by a licensed electrician or electrical inspector. Make sure you get a Certificate of Compliance from the licensed electrician when the work is done, and ask how to test and reset the RCD.

Note that there is a legal requirement that electrical installations and appliances in damp situations, such as bathrooms and kitchens, must be electrically safe. This can be achieved by having a RCD wired into the sockets in these areas.

Staying safe at heights

Fit outside walls with sockets for holding scaffold brackets. Position sockets so a scaffolder can move up the wall without risking a fall. Bracket sockets must be securely screwed into the wall studs.

Using scaffolding

If the scaffold is fixed to the wall, check scaffold brackets are firmly attached to the studs and not corroded.

For free standing scaffolding:

  • Fix the scaffolding squarely onto solid footings or support.
  • Tie the scaffolding for extra safety.
  • Only use scaffolding with handrails and toe boards.
  • Tie boards to scaffolding.

Note: Scaffolding over 5m high requires a certified scaffolder to erect and notification to the Labour Department.

Basic safety guidelines for using a ladder

  • Make sure your ladder is in good condition before use. Look for loose or damaged rungs, damaged rails and missing or worn non-slip feet. If the ladder is damaged, get it repaired or replaced. Don’t use it! New ladders must have a label that says they meet the requirements of AS/NZS 1892 for metal ladders.
  • Make sure the ladder is sitting on a level base, putting a ladder on uneven ground can cause it to topple under your weight.
  • Puts blocks behind the slip-resistant feet of the ladder.
  • If the ground is soft use a baseboard or sheet of plywood under the ladder footing.
  • Prop the ladder at the correct angle - one metre out for every four metres up.
  • Use a long enough ladder for the task – ladders should extend 1m past the structure being climbed.
  • Wear flat shoes.
  • Place the ladder at a point where the roofline or other structure is closest to the ground.
  • Make sure there is nothing dangerous on the ground if you do fall, such as protruding objects.
  • Check there is somewhere to tie the top of the ladder near where it is resting. If there isn’t, reposition the ladder before going up.
  • Have the ladder steadied by another person until the top can be anchored or tied. This person should secure the base of the ladder with their feet and hold the ladder with both hands.
  • It’s a good idea to have a piece of strong cord permanently looped around the top rung to tie it off. Synthetic cord between 4-8mm is ideal.
  • Don’t carry tools in your hands as you go up the ladder. Use a tool belt or backpack for larger items. Heavy items should be pulled up with a rope.
  • Always have three points of contact between your body and the ladder – two hands, one foot as you go up or down the ladder, two feet one hand as you work.
  • If you are working on the roof, don’t tie a rope around your waist – it is likely to cause you internal injuries if you fall.
  • Make sure there are no electrical wires that could pose a threat of electrocution.
  • Always face the ladder, never come down the ladder with your back to it.
  • Don’t over-reach sideways. As a rule your belt buckle should stay between the ladder uprights. If this puts you out of reach of your task, climb down and reposition the ladder.
  • Don’t lean the ladder against anything breakable, such as glass and plastic guttering. If you lean the ladder against guttering, place a block of wood in the gutter to prevent damage.
  • Don’t work from the top two treads of a ladder.
  • Don’t place the ladder where it is likely to be hit by passing vehicles or people.

Stepladders

  • Use a firm level, non-slip footing for the ladder.
  • Make sure the ladder has two working stays and that these are locked when in use.
  • Don’t place a stepladder on boxes or scaffolding for extra height.
  • Don’t use a stepladder to support a work platform.
  • Don’t work from the top step of a stepladder.

Working on decks and balconies

Rotting balconies, decks and balustrades have been identified as a significant safety hazard. Indications that your deck or balcony is unsafe include:

  • Movement when walked on.
  • Damp spots or stains where the balcony joins the main part of the building.
  • Cracks, particularly near joints and corners.
  • Balustrades that wobble.
  • Balustrades where damp spots or stains can be seen on the cladding.
  • Corroding fixings.

If you see any of these signs, prevent access to the balcony or deck and seek advice from a professional as soon as possible.

For more information about unsafe decks and balconies, see Balconies and decksor visit the Department of Building and Housing website.

Working with treated timber

When working with treated timber, there is a risk of inhalation of noxious fumes and dust.

Guidelines have been put together for people working with Light Organic Solvent Preservatives (LOSP) or copper, chromium and arsenic (CCA) treated timber. These guidelines can be found at www.nztif.co.nz.

The guidelines recommend waiting for the preservatives to dry off before using the treated timber, but if this is not an option, wear protective goggles and use a respirator when cutting or sanding treated timber.

You should also wash your clothes separately from other household clothing and wash your hands before eating, drinking or smoking. Any off-cuts should be disposed of in a proper landfill.

Working with asbestos

Some older homes built before 1983 may have been built with materials that contain asbestos. For example, sprayed ceilings, cement sheeting, some types of floor coverings and some roof materials. Breathing in dust and fibres containing asbestos can cause asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest lining), pleural diseases (including fluid on the lungs, and asbestosis, which is scarring of the lungs). These diseases are crippling, very painful and usually fatal. There are no known cures for asbestos-related diseases.

However, provided the materials containing asbestos are in good condition and have a good coat of paint, there should be no health risk.

If your renovations involve removing or sanding materials that you suspect could contain asbestos, or if you are unsure what the materials are made of, contact your Health Protection Officer of your local District Health Board for advice on identifying and managing this material.

Asbestos materials should only be removed or handled by a contractor experienced in this type of work. Look under ‘Asbestos’ in the Yellow Pages.

Lead paint

If your house was built before 1980, assume it has some lead-based paint. This is a problem because when you start to remove the paint you risk absorbing the lead through contact with your skin, or from the atmosphere through sanding dust or flakes. It contaminates clothing and furnishings and can lead to lead poisoning. Symptoms of lead poisoning include stomach pains, loss of appetite, weakness and difficulty walking. It can eventually lead to death.

You can test paint for lead content by using sodium sulphite solution (5%). Some paint shops and pharmacies sell the solution. Generally the test is carried out by cutting into the paint exposing the back of the suspect layer and dropping some of the solution onto it. If it turns black it contains lead.

Even if your home has been painted more recently, the paint on the lower layers may contain lead, if they were painted over previously.

If you are employing a painter, they should be aware of the problem and know how to deal with it, but it is a good idea to raise the issue with them.

Note that lead-based paint is only a danger to health if it has deteriorated, for example, if it has started to flake. If it is in good condition, repainting it is a good option rather than trying to remove it. In fact, removing it is likely to increase the risk of exposure from dust and flake. Removing lead-based paint

If you have to remove lead-based paint, there are specific precautions you must take to protect your health, as well as that of your family and pets.

The best method is by wet sanding - misting painted surfaces with a spray bottle and removing paint using sharp scrapers or wet and dry sandpaper. This keeps the dust to a minimum.

Abrasive blasting is not recommended because of the amount of dust generated. Chemicals can be used for small areas. Dry hand sanding or machine sanding can be done provided the dust is carefully contained. Water blasting for outside is fine provided the flakes are collected and disposed of without contaminating the soil or surrounding area.

Precautions you should take include:

  • Taking down the curtains and furniture and covering the carpets with protective covering before removing the paint.
  • Keeping other people and pets away while you’re working.
  • Using a toxic-dust respirator.
  • Wearing a hair covering and protective clothing, including gloves and suitable footwear.
  • Keeping windows and doors closed if you are working outside, to stop paint dust and flake getting inside.
  • Wiping sanded surfaces and then vacuuming. Collect as much of the dust and paint flakes as possible. Contact your local council for advice on where to dispose of it (don’t burn it as this releases it into the atmosphere).
  • Thoroughly washing your hands and face before eating or drinking.
  • Changing out of contaminated clothing before going anywhere else.

Get the latest guidelines for the management of lead-based paint from Worksafe.

Storing paint and chemicals

Follow these guidelines for safe storage:

  • Keep paint and chemicals, such as turpentine, in a locked dry cupboard.
  • Make sure all containers are correctly labelled, closed and sealed.
  • Never store poisonous substances in old food containers.
  • Do not store large quantities (more than five litres) of flammable liquids (such as petrol and turpentine) inside the house or a garage attached to the house. They should be stored somewhere well away from where people are living.

Gas and plumbing

Gas

Leaking gas is life-threatening and should be attended to immediately. Extinguish all naked lights and cigarettes and get everyone out of the house. When the house has been evacuated, return to open doors and windows to disperse the gas. Check all gas appliances are switched off. Do not switch any electrical appliances on or off until the gas has cleared.

If there is a leak, switch the gas off at the meter. Do not use any phones (including mobile phones) near a suspected gas leak.

You are not permitted by law to repair gas leaks – this must be done by a licensed Craftsman Gasfitter. Contact your retailer or a licensed Craftsman Gasfitter to check the installation.

A Craftsman Gasfitter must certify and sign off on any gas work that they carry out. They must also supply you with a certificate when the work is completed. A Registered Gasfitter will need a Craftsman Gasfitter to sign off their work. Location of your gas meter and stop valve

Don’t wait until an emergency to know where and how to switch off your gas at the meter (usually a lever). Remember: all screw-down taps turn off in a clockwise direction.

Gas safety

Gas appliances have to be well ventilated. If there is not enough fresh air circulating in the room where a gas appliance is being used carbon monoxide gas may build up with potentially fatal effects. Appliances that do not have a flue to remove fumes must not be used in bedrooms and bathrooms.

Clues that your gas appliances may not be operating correctly include:

  • The gas burns with a yellow rather than a blue flame (apart from some flame effect heaters).
  • Soot may be deposited in or around the appliance.
  • An unpleasant smell.

Have your gas appliances checked regularly and if you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to call a licensed gasfitter to check the installation.

Any connections of gasfittings and gas appliances must be done by or under the supervision of a licensed gasfitter. Plumbing and drainage

With the exception of a few minor tasks, such as changing washers and taps, all plumbing work must be carried out by a registered plumber. This is for health reasons – just one incorrect plumbing connection could allow a back-flow of polluted water into your drinking water.