THE three Victorian houses James G. Ferreri renovated are gone from his
life, but the pain from his falls and injuries lingers on: there's the
arthritis, the atrophy in his right arm, and the back trouble, for which he's
had two surgeries (a third is looming).
In pursuit of perfection, Mr. Ferreri, a 52-year-old interior designer who
is the president of the Preservation League of Staten Island, has replaced
bathrooms, floors, staircases and shingles. Once he hauled a 300-pound
cast-iron fireplace liner from the basement to the curb. That put him on his
back for a month, getting epidural injections for the pain. He also got into
trouble removing a recalcitrant piece of siding. Standing on a ladder, he
yanked the siding with both hands and landed 15 feet below on his back.
But for a fixer-upper experience of the horror-movie sort, nothing beats the
time Mr. Ferreri decided to replace the chains of the windows in an 1869
Italianate house on Staten Island. The windows he was working on ran floor
"You have to take off the parting strip," he explained, "and separate one
sash from the other, and I was carefully tapping the window frame out -- "
Wait a minute. Shouldn't he have been working with another person?
"They slow me down. Who wants to argue?" Mr. Ferreri said. "And I put my arm
and the hammer through the 130-year-old glass. Luckily no stitches were
needed, but it was very bloody. My father grew up in the bleach business -
my father's remedy for everything was bleach - and all I could picture was
this 130-year-old dirt in my arm, so I just poured the Clorox over my hand
"I remember the bleach bubbling as it was going down the drain with my blood
mixed in," Mr. Ferreri said. "It was like the shower scene from 'Psycho.' "
So that tree behind your house is dead and you're thinking of renting a
chain saw and bringing it down yourself, now that the warm weather has
arrived and fix-up season is here in its wild, manic bloom? The winter snows
have taken a toll on the shingles, and you're going to climb up on the roof
in flip-flops, a hammer in one hand and a beer in another?
Before you tackle your fix-up projects, consider these words from the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Each year, approximately 36,000
people are treated in hospital emergency departments for injuries using
chain saws." Or this statistic, part of a study released last month by Duke
University Medical Center and the National Institute for Occupational Safety
and Health, which is part of the C.D.C.: While the number of professional
contractors and workers seeking treatment for nail-gun injuries remained
stable between 1998 and 2005, the number of do-it-yourselfers in the same
situation went up 30 percent. (Between 1991 and 2005, the increase for
D.I.Y.ers was more than 200 percent.)
Part of the problem, according to Hester Lipscomb, associate professor of
occupational and environmental medicine at Duke, is that high-speed nail
guns have become more affordable and readily available.
But there's also the fact that Americans seem to have grown more comfortable
with handling home improvement projects they would once have left to the
professionals. In recent years, scores of new home-repair books, magazines
and television shows - even an entire cable network - have encouraged
homeowners to take control of their surroundings. Chain stores like Home
Depot and Lowe's have proliferated (there are now 1,895 Home Depot stores in
the United States, up from 96 in 1998), and consumer spending on home
improvement products nearly doubled between 1996 and 2006, to more than $230
billion, according to the Home Improvement Research Institute, a trade group
that conducts large market studies.
Perhaps it's surprising that there aren't more disasters. Of course, as any
contractor can tell you, there are plenty of close calls, to which
homeowners often may remain happily oblivious. David Guido, who runs
Witchtree Contracting in Woodstock, N.Y., once stopped by the home of a
client who had just bought a kerosene heater and was about to fill it up
with a can of gasoline.
"If I had come by 10 minutes later, it would have went up like a bomb," Mr.
He also recalled a man who removed the foundation from beneath his fireplace
so he could open up the basement and put in a pool table.
"The whole fireplace was held up by the floor joists," Mr. Guido said. "I
went real quick and got three or four guys off a job and we put up a whole
bunch of braces to hold up the house."
Certainly you would never make such an error, but what with the thrill of
straddling the roof and hoping that good-looking neighbor sees you, even the
most sober soul can become careless. And so, in the spirit of safety, a few
When deciding whether to finish a job or to replace the dull blades of a
power saw, replace the blades. Or, say hello to mah little friend.
It may seem counterintuitive that a dull blade is more dangerous than a
sharp blade. But consider the case of Dan Barrett, 40 years old, married
with children and possessed of a middle finger that now has the dexterity of
a popsicle stick. Some years ago Mr. Barrett, who works for an
auto-insurance company and lives in Norwell, Mass., just south of Boston,
bought a 1950s Cape Cod that needed a lot of work. One Saturday afternoon he
decided to cut some thin strips of wood trim with his table saw.
"I was actually trying to do this the right way," Mr. Barrett said. "I was
using a push stick, so my hands wouldn't come up against the blade. It was
not a complete Homer Simpson moment. But the error was, the blade I was
using in the saw was dull, and that required me to push hard on the wood for
it to go through - harder than is safe - and the push stick slips and my
hand goes into the blade.
"It wasn't quite that gruesome because the way I was gripping the stick it
was as if I had a fist, so it was not a scene where the fingers are getting
Since, as he explains it, "there were no digits flying all over the place,"
Mr. Barrett assumed his injury was not serious. He wrapped his hand in a
roll of paper towels, being careful not to look at the injury. At the
hospital, the triage nurse unwrapped his hand and gasped.
As Mr. Barrett said, "When a medical professional in an emergency room gasps
at your injury, it's probably a bad sign." The blade had sliced two-thirds
of the way through his middle finger below the knuckle, and had pulverized
the middle joint.
A question regarding his project: Those skinny little pieces of wood trim -
can't you just buy them?
"What are you, a wise guy?" Mr. Barrett said.
Mister, there was this circuit breaker.
There is a certain sameness to stories of electrical mishap. Or as Bogart
might have said, had there been a remake of "Casablanca" from the homeowner
angle and had Ingrid Bergman been an anguished do-it-yourselfer: "Yeah, I
heard a lot of sad stories about doing your own electric. They all begin the
same way, 'Mister, I thought the juice was off.' "
Jim Johannemann, the former president of the Hudson Valley chapter of the
National Electrical Contractors Association and the president and chief
executive of All Bright Electric, an electrical contracting firm, knows of a
homeowner who decided to install his new dishwasher. The electricity was on.
The homeowner was killed.
Joe Simpson, a 41-year-old junior high school teacher in Saratoga, N.Y.,
bought a caretaker's cabin on the grounds of a former Girl Scout camp some
years back. Since money was tight, he decided to do the extensive repair
work, including the wiring, himself (he spent a half day with the school
shop teacher to learn some basics).
Before disconnecting an electric heating unit, he, of course, shut off the
circuit breaker. He left the wire that had connected the heater to the
breaker on the ground, figuring he'd get around to removing it.
A month later, the ground wire forgotten, Mr. Simpson was down in the dark
basement, trying to figure out which light was controlled by which breaker
by flipping the breakers on and off. Sparks flew and smoke filled the
basement. Rubber insulation burned and the breaker box melted. Mr. Simpson
fled, thinking the house was about to go up in flames. It did not. After the
smoke cleared, Mr. Simpson hired a licensed electrician.
Here's a little mental trick.
While all nail guns are capable of doing serious bodily harm, some are safer
than others, according to Professor Lipscomb, the co-author of the Duke
study. The safer models, she said, have something called a sequential-trip
Since that's the sort of thing that can be difficult to remember, we offer
up this story from Darlene Glover, the nurse manager of the emergency room
of Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, Me. Ms. Glover once admitted a man
who had been wearing thick outdoor boots and had still managed to shoot
himself in the foot with a nail gun so badly that only the nail head was
visible; he had nailed his shoe to his foot. It is not known what sort of
trigger his nail gun had, but the nail had to be removed sequentially:
first, according to Ms. Glover, with a large dose of anesthesia, then with
Sequentially, a number of meetings with clients were canceled.
Sculptors who work with woods and metals tend to be can-do sorts, familiar
with blowtorches and electrical saws. This is certainly the case with Gregg
LeFevre, the sculptor and photographer whose bronze relief insets can be
seen in the sidewalks outside the New York Public Library at 41st Street.
Mr. LeFevre has renovated several old buildings. He has had many injuries
and close calls: Slicing one finger lengthwise, like a Nathan's frank, when
the blades of his table saw grabbed his glove; getting knocked off a 22-foot
ladder from an electrical shock after rewiring an old factory building in
Massachusetts; falling from a ladder when he was helping an artist friend
pin up a large drawing because the artist, who had been supporting the
ladder at its base, leaned away from the ladder to pin the bottom of the
Mr. LeFevre fell 20 feet, clutching at the wall like a desperate cartoon
character, and landed on his knees. Destroying the art as he fell gave him
some satisfaction, but when he managed to get to his feet he still slugged
But it is his plumbing story that is the most humbling. Mr. LeFevre had been
living in a space that did not have plumbing, and he decided he would tap
into the main sewage pipe of his building, in the basement. The plan was to
cut that pipe in two places, then install a T-shape pipe from which he could
run his own line. Since sewage ran through the pipes every time someone used
the toilet, timing was crucial.
"I had to figure when it was least likely somebody in this big building
would flush," Mr. LeFevre said. "I figured 3 in the morning on Monday
morning. People aren't going to be partying, they're going to be going to
bed early Sunday night. I got a friend to help me. We actually did a test
cut with some spare pipe."
At 3 a.m. the men put on their safety goggles and cut through the pipe.
"We pulled out the section," Mr. LeFevre said, "and immediately somebody
flushed. We're laughing hysterically - we're laughing so hard we can't even
stand up. We're completely grossed out. Then somebody else flushed. Plumbers
have a special little unit they can attach for this situation. We didn't."
Sequentially, leaving a nail gun on top of a ladder, then moving the ladder,
is never a good idea.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that there were
198,480 ladder-related injuries in 2006 that resulted in emergency room
visits. The craziest one that Dr. Robert Marcus, director of the emergency
department of Northern Westchester Hospital, recalls involved a man who
sawed off the branch that was supporting his ladder. Dr. Marcus figures that
he must have been very tired.
At least you can't go wrong painting your apartment.
Actually, a New York City back specialist, Dr. Loren M. Fishman, who wrote
"Relief is in the Stretch: End Back Pain Through Yoga" with Carol Ardman,
has seen cases of herniated discs from painting the ceiling - small, New
York City studio-size ceilings. His prevention tip: "Take 5- or 10-minute
breaks, dangle your neck forward, or if you do yoga, do the child pose or
Maybe I'll just hire a contractor and stay at home to supervise.
Very sensible! Although you should know that there is a common injury that
results from stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night - so
common that doctors have an expression for it; we'll paraphrase and call it
a urination fracture - and that it is often compounded when unfamiliar
construction material is lying about.
"I had one case where the person completely jammed their foot into a stack
of wood on the floor and came in with two fractured metatarsals as well as a
dislocation; the little toe was dangling off to the side," said Dr. Rock
Positano, the director of the Non-Surgical Foot and Ankle Center at the
Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. "We call it an inelastic
collision. The piece of wood or building material doesn't move but the foot
He offered a sentimental college memory: "When I was at Yale, I'll never
forget, we had a professor who said the velocity of a foot hitting a
stationary object like a door or a bed is about 60 miles an hour."
Or I'll just sit under my big old backyard maple - after I lop off that
mostly dead branch.
Many municipalities have rules about who can cut down trees. This is
understandable, given that people fall out of trees, and that trees fall
where they are not supposed to fall, and that one homeowner in Newnan, Ga.,
felled a tree just as the family dog bounded out of the house. (Note to the
children: The dog is now living with a nice family in a city with lots of
Tchukki Andersen, the staff arborist for the Tree Care Industry Association,
which operates a referral service for professional tree care companies
(tcia.org ), said amateurs should never try to take down trees or branches,
even if they are using an instruction manual.
"You might be able to get a book on brain surgery, but that doesn't mean you
should do it, " Ms. Andersen said.
Dangers exist even for the professional.
Jeff Outwater, who now owns the Outwater Building and Painting contracting
business in Shokan, N.Y., near Woodstock, had been in the firewood business
and had done a lot of chainsaw work when his mother asked him to cut down a
willow in her yard several years ago. The plan was to cut down the tree at
the base, so Mr. Outwater did not bring climbing gear or a safety belt. But
after he arrived and there was concern about a branch falling on a nearby
shed, Mr. Outwater put a ladder against the tree and went up with his chain
saw, to cut off the branch. He used both hands to control the saw. Then he
lost his balance.
"I took my left hand to grab the tree and my second hand was holding the saw
and I couldn't hold it up in the air and it came down and amputated my arm,"
Mr. Outwater said. "I had to climb down off the tree. My arm was shooting
blood like a squirt gun. I thought I was going to bleed to death."
The arm was almost completely severed. Mr. Outwater's mother, Linda Cowell,
who is a nurse, quickly tied a tourniquet on his arm, using a T-shirt. After
sitting in an emergency room in Kingston for hours as doctors searched for a
surgeon, Mr. Outwater had his arm reattached by Dr. Richard Whipple, an
orthopedic surgeon then at the Albany Medical Center and now with the
Capital Region Orthopedic Group in Albany.
It took two years for Mr. Outwater to regain the use of his arm. Today he
says his error was going into the tree without a safety belt and cleats. Had
he been wearing his belt when he lost his balance, he would have known he
was not going to fall and would not have grabbed the tree.
Does he still do home repairs?
"I have never used a chain saw since," he said. "The first couple of years,
I couldn't even hear someone using a chain saw. I was living in a house that
we used to heat with wood, and when someone would cut up the logs, I would
have to leave."
The T-shirt, from a Who concert, was treasured because it had saved his
life. When Mr. Outwater got out of the hospital, he washed it and wore it.
One could not call it a good luck token.
In Mr. Outwater's first year back at work, his best friend, working with him
on a roofing job, tossed a metal bracket off the roof, unaware that Mr.
Outwater was in the yard below. It went two inches into his brain and
involved an even longer and more difficult recovery. But that's another