Warning: your pants can kill

Have you ever wondered how many people are injured climbing ladders," asks the department of trade and industry, "or attend casualty as a result of burning themselves on the barbecue?" If, like me, you answer "No, not really", you should be ashamed of yourself.

For home is where heart-stopping hazards lurk behind every door and at the bottom of the wardrobe - or so the department's "home accident surveillance system" (HASS) would have us believe. You will know what the HASS report is, even if you think you don't. It's the one cited at the tail end of those silly-season news items about the statistical dangers of DIY (7,402 Britons injured by hammer blows in 1998) and of letting little Johnny paddle in the chip pan.

The report makes sombre reading unless you've got a sense of humour, in which case it's a right wheeze. It is published annually - the latest emerged this spring - as a clarion call to we, the vulnerable public, to take seriously the presence of peril in our own homes. "You're regulated at work," says Jane Eason at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), "and you pay attention when driving. But when you get home you relax and let your guard down."

A fatal mistake, and one which the government is anxious to rectify - not least because accidents in the home cost the nation £25,000m per year, or three millennium domes. Dr Kim Howells, minister for consumer and corporate affairs, whose department seeks the eradication of the slippery floor and the swallowed sellotape, says: "We are investing a great deal of time and energy in reducing accidents in the future." It gives a whole new dimension to the term "nanny state".

Is it, after all, the government's role to cater for the 6,152 people hospitalised in 1998 having been daft enough to collide, injuriously, with their dog? Then there's the 5,937 burned by cups of tea, and the 5,781 victims of "unspecified hot water" - which does, admittedly, sound pretty scary. The HASS report and its attendant flurry of press releases are full of bathetic warnings of kitchen-table catastrophe. "Tin cans pose a risk to the unwary," we read - so take note, for "there are nearly 6,000 accidents a year. The DTI is working closely with industry to tackle this."

The report is no less fascinating for what it doesn't say. "Apart from 1993, when considerably fewer people choked on fish bones, choking accidents have been on the rise," it tells us, but offers no clue as to what made 1993 such a well-filleted year. And while the data asserts that, while 130,675 were hospitalised after falling over their carpets, only 67,574 keeled over on concrete, it's left to us to adduce that the sensible precaution would be to swap our shagpiles for cement.

Admitting that some of HASS's extrapolations - from data gathered from 18 A&E units in England and Wales - seem bizarre, Eason says that "you do read that report and think: my God, how on Earth do you get injured by that?" With her help, however, the Guardian is pleased to offer up - in the very sober spirit of accident prevention - a thumbnail guide to those least suspected of domestic threats.

Trousers: That favourite pair of comfy cords could be your nemesis: trousers account for thousands of tumbles per year. "You might be getting on a bit," says Eason sympathetically, "you catch your foot in your trouser leg" - and let's draw a veil over what, painfully, happens next.

Slippers: Don't panic, but slipper-related incidents account for some 27,000 visits to A&E per year. "You lose the tread on the sole," Eason explains, "but don't replace the slippers as readily as you would a normal pair of shoes." Apply such treacherous footwear to a well-buffed linoleum and "the old Carry On scenario", as Eason calls it, must unavoidably ensue.

DIY: "It's getting more and more popular, now that so many people watch programmes such as Changing Rooms." Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is responsible, in other words, for the quarter of a million DIY casualties per year - which is as good a reason as any to unscrew that wobbly shelf and, if you see him, apply it sharply to his jaw. Eason's advice: "People have to be able to admit when they can't do something. They should call in the experts and" - in hapless recognition of the extent of their talents - "make them a cup of tea."

Flowerpots (left lying about): Bill and Ben will never seem the same again.

Underpants: Never underestimate how perilous pants can be. "You get changed, you get into bed, you may leave your underpants on the floor," says Eason, and I can almost see the vultures gathering above the scene. "You've got a polished floor, you get up in the morning, and . . . " - crash! The worst kind of brief encounter.

Eason calls home accidents "the hidden epidemic" and it's easy to see why. After a conversation with her, you feel like wearing protective clothing on the trip from the living room to the loo. In fact, Eason says, it's about being vigilant: "We're asking people, once they get in, to have a quick look around and check that things are fairly tidy." For, as HASS reports: "The majority [of accidents] appear to be caused by people's actions rather than faulty products."

It's the kids we should really fear for, says RoSPA. Mums and dads are encouraged "to get down on the floor and look around the room from the child's perspective at how many objects might be dangerous if children got their hands on them". "You'd be amazed," says Eason.

But she knows that trying to prevent accidents, at an institutional level, is like trying to prevent the wind: 22 years of HASS reports haven't dented the domestic accident figures (1993 and fishbones notwithstanding). We'll never be persuaded to be on-guard in our own homes, and it would be a worse world if we were. Rakes will continue to languish on the lawn, prongs up. Blu-tac will ever adhere to walls well within reach of little clamorous hands. "But if," says Eason, "by convincing even two or three people to take that extra precaution, we can save them from accidents, then the job's been worth doing."

As Kim Howells intones, in the introduction to the report, "no matter how valuable the data, we must never forget that it relates to real people who have suffered personal distress or discomfort". The problem is, we do forget that, all too readily. The curse of this research is that it relates to situations forever undermined by comedy sketches - all those saucepans stuck on heads in doctors' waiting rooms - and You've Been Framed. The familiarity of the dangers make us doubt or deny them. We deflect responsibility with ridicule. 24,000 injured by doors? 43,000 falls from ladders? The scourge of the threadbare sock? It's the price we pay for the jealously-guarded right to be complacent in our own homes.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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