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Safety Matters

Stewarding your Older Home

Picture the weekend warrior. Jeans, flannel shirt, maybe a big tool belt with hammer in hand right? Well how about someone donned in safety glasses, hearing protection, a respirator mask and gloves instead? I know, not so snazzy a sight, but this is the fashion statement you should make when tackling old house projects.

It is easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of finally getting rid of that awful pink paint on the bedroom woodwork, tearing out that 60’s paneling or fixing a broken window and jump in without properly protecting yourself. There are many hazards involved in any project, and physical dangers are presented in many forms. In older homes, we have the added risk of the presence of older materials that are no longer used for the very reason that they present such dangers. Lead, asbestos, lime, mold, and who-knows-what-else are likely in older buildings if they will be anywhere. A smart rule of thumb is to always assume a hazard such as lead is there and protect yourself and your family accordingly.

Always cover your skin to protect it from abrasion and chemicals. Wear rugged, comfortable clothing that allows you to move freely and quickly. Invest in a good pair of boots, preferably with steel toes so you have good traction and balance. There are many types of hand protection depending on what you are doing. Wear latex gloves for mixing plaster, joint compounds, painting with oil paints, and using stains. For heavy chemicals, use at least a neoprene or Mylar glove. Read labels carefully of any solvents and chemicals you may be using as many dissolve certain materials. Chemicals such as paint strippers can actually eat into your skin for days once exposed. Clothing is also a hazard carrier, allowing you to transport lead dust into other areas of the home. Items such as Tyvek suits cover you while your work, and can be disposed of within the hazard zone so you can walk away “clean”.

For reason of laziness, vanity and comfort people skip glasses on many projects that pose serious threat to eye safety. Always expect the unexpected, and that it will come at you very fast. Eyes are perhaps our most vulnerable exposure and must be protected on any project. Glasses should fit snuggly and cover your entire eye area, including the sides. If you find the right pair you will forget you even have them on, and remember to keep them clean.

Likewise, ear protection is often overlooked. Even quick cuts with a chop saw or short bursts with a shop vac blast your ears with dangerous noise levels. Inexpensive vacuums are renowned for emitting noise above acceptable levels, and even 15 minutes over the course of a day can be damaging. Noise is also not the only way to lose hearing. Compounds such as lead and several chemicals are ototoxins (requiring a respirator mask as well as hearing protection depending on the compound) which target hearing receptors and cause loss. People who work in the trades over many years are notorious “loud talkers” because of skipping this basic effort.

Invest in a good quality rubber ½ mask with changeable cartridge ability. 3M 6000 series is our favorite because it lasts forever and has a bayonet mount for easy filter changing. Once you have a mask for changeable cartridges, you can get a filter for many situations and things that bother you. For basic home repairs have HEPA (high efficiency particulate air filtration) and charcoal filters. Filters or mask cartridges indicating HEPA are to protect against hazardous airborne dust particles such as lead, mercury, lime dust, and asbestos. Always wear one when dismantling, doing demolition, sanding, or mixing dry compounds with wet ones. Filters or mask cartridges indicating charcoal filtration are broad-based, useful filters for organic vapors such as oil-based paints, paint strippers, and other chemical and solvents like adhesives and epoxies. Additionally, special ones for bleach are not a bad idea if you are dealing with a lot of mold. The white paper ones readily available are not good for more than avoiding nuisances such as grass pollen, saw dust, and fiberglass insulation so do not depend on them for serious protection of your lungs. All filters are not created equal, and the dust that hurts you most you cannot see. A “filtered vacuum” does not mean it will protect you from hazards such as lead dust. Read labels carefully and be sure the filters on your equipment are appropriate for the work you are doing and hazards you are encountering.

Additional safety gear on the job site should include a fire extinguisher, and first aid kit. It is also good idea to have a Live-Wire Detector, ventilation equipment such as fans, and a vacuum with a fine-filtration filter.

Noelle Lord operates Old House C.P.R., Inc. with husband Peter, and specializes in restoring historic surfaces and helping folks take good care of their older homes.