The Hazards of Heating: Tips to Stay Safe this Winter

Winter is upon us in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and it is necessary to heat our homes to stay warm. Each method of heating our homes poses a safety risk for you and your family. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, winter residential building fires account for an average of 945 deaths and nearly 4,000 injuries each year. Here are some tips to keep your family safe this winter.

Fireplace Safety

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, nearly one-third of all Americans use a fireplace, wood stove or other fuel-fired appliance as the primary method of heating their home. Here are some tips on safely operating a fireplace.

  • Be sure to have your chimney inspected and/or cleaned every year to avoid a chimney fire.

  • Be sure to utilize the glass doors or mesh screens to avoid embers escaping from the fire place. If you have children, be sure to have a proper barrier around the fireplace and hearth to avoid any burns.

  • Do not burn trash, debris, or other materials in your fireplace or add accelerants or flammable liquids to start a fire.

  • Never leave a fire unattended.

  • Be sure to have properly installed and functioning smoke detectors throughout your home, especially in sleeping areas. Be sure to change the batteries once a year.

Gas Furnace Safety

Whether natural gas, propane, or oil, furnaces are efficient ways to heat your home but these types of heating devices pose their own risks. Be sure that your furnace is installed, serviced and repaired by a licensed and insured contractor. Take extra care when extinguishing or re-lighting the pilot light. If you smell gas, turn off the furnace immediately and leave your home.

Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Unfortunately improperly functioning furnaces cause another hazard that cannot be easily detected. Every year hundreds of people die from carbon monoxide poisoning and more than 20,000 present to the emergency room with approximately 25% of those cases resulting in hospitalization. Carbon monoxide builds up in the blood faster than oxygen and by blocking available oxygen within the body, the tissues become damaged and this can result in death. Common symptoms include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, and confusion. High levels can cause a loss of consciousness and death. Sleeping or intoxicated people are the most vulnerable and may die before ever experiencing symptoms. Carbon monoxide poisoning is also very dangerous to fetuses, infants, the elderly and those with specific medical conditions. It is recommended that you fit your house with a carbon monoxide detector which will sound an alarm if levels get too high. For more information about Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, you may want to read this pamphlet put out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or this Frequently Asked Questions article put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Space Heater Safety

According to the National Fire Protection Association, one third of heating related fires and four-fifths of heating fire related deaths were caused by space heaters. Nearly a quarter of these fires were caused by the heater being too close to something that could catch fire. Here are some tips to use a space heater safely:

  • Keep the heater AT LEAST three feet away from anything that could ignite from the heat including furniture, bedding, draperies, and walls.

  • Keep space heaters away from any area with water, such as a bathroom or kitchen.

  • Keep children and pets away from the heater at all times. Don’t use a space heater in a room where children may be unsupervised.

  • Plug directly into an outlet. Do not use an extension cord. Unplug the unit when you are leaving the room or going to bed.

  • Keep portable heaters on a level surface to avoid them tipping over

For additional safety tips, you may want to read the Electrical Safety Foundation International’s pamphlet on Electric Space Heater Safety or the Fast Facts sheet put out by the Office of Compliance.

The Injury Law Center® sincerely hopes that everyone has a safe and happy winter season.

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