A Potentially Fatal Accident in the Home

by sockii

More than 18,000 Americans die every year from injuries that take place in the home, according to statistics. Are you aware of potential safety risks in your house?

We tend to think of our homes as our "safe spaces"—places we can be secure and comfortable away from the dangers of the outside world.

But the reality is that many thousands of people every year are injured, or even die, in in their home. The potential risks are many, including poisoning, suffocation and fire, but falls are perhaps one of the biggest risks of all.

I should know. Not once but twice I suffered from what could have been extremely serious, even life-threatening, falls in my old home. And they could have been prevented with a few simple safety improvements that didn't cross my mind until after the fact.

My old apartment dining room and kitchen. The staircase of danger in the back.
My old apartment dining room and kitchen. The staircase of danger in the back.

My Story

For eight years I lived in an old, three-story rowhome in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first floor was my art studio and gallery, and the two upper floors my living space. It was a lovely building with a great deal of architectural character, and I especially loved the hardwood floors throughout most of the building.

However, one thing I did not care for was the very narrow, steep wooden staircase between the second and third floors. Because of the staircase's narrow width, it only had partial railings: one along the top floor, and one along the bottom half of the steps. I would always caution guests to use care on the staircase, and had it in the back of my mind for years that I should really put some rubber treads on those steps. But I kept putting it off, and as such it nearly cost me my life—not just once, but twice!

The staircase in question
The staircase in question

The first time I fell, it was early morning. I was rushing around to collect trash from the upstairs bathrooms for weekly trash day collection. With two trash bags in my hands, I did not have a free hand to grab the top railing before descending the steps. I was also walking around, foolishly, in socks with no shoes on. Big mistake on both parts, but it was early, as I said, and I don't think I was fully awake yet. I wasn't paying attention and somehow I put my foot down wrong on the top step. The next thing I knew, trash bags were flying overhead and I was slipping backwards down the stairwell.

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Falling was a strange sensation. It happened slower to my perception than I thought it should. I hit my tailbone hard on the floor, multiple times on the way down, but miraculously did not hit my head.

Due to momentum I could not stop myself from falling down the entire length of the staircase. I remembered that many people are seriously injured in accidents from tensing up, so I tried to relax and simply allow myself to keep sliding and falling forward. I did not stop until I hit the very bottom of the stairwell, which opens up in to a hall closet.

It was several minutes before I even attempted to move. I wanted to make sure that nothing was broken, and fortunately that seemed to be the case. My heart was racing and I had broken into a cold sweat. I was shaky and it took a while to feel ready to get on my feet. I was alone in the house, except for my cats, so it was very fortunate I had not lost consciousness or been seriously injured. Although my mother at the time lived only a few blocks away, it might have been several hours before she called or stopped by to see me, or tried to call me.

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I escaped that fall with nothing but some very bad black-and-blues along my left side, including my left arm and left leg as I had fallen favoring that side. I vowed to myself that I would never walk around the house in just my socks again! (I should have gotten those stair treads installed, but I blame being young and not having a lot of experience in home maintenance and safety yet.) I would also be more careful on those steps and make sure to always grab the upper handrail before descending. For several years, I was good on remembering to follow both points. But then I got careless again, and this time the results were quite a bit worse.

In 2009, I decided to try to sell the property as I was looking to move out of the city. After many years of living in the building, it was taking considerable work to clean it up and make it presentable for photographing and showing. After two months of cleaning and staging work, I had an appointment with my real estate broker to do the final photographs for the listing. Of course, the morning of the appointment I was frantically doing last minute cleaning - including washing the wooden floors.

In trying to shine up the floors a bit, I used a dust-removal product on them I know now I shouldn't have, as it made the floors a bit slippery. It was on my mind that I needed to put on shoes. I'd been walking around barefoot, gone up to the third floor to get my socks on, and realized my shoes were still downstairs. I had my laptop in my hands and was rushing, distracted, to the stairs, and once again forgot to grasp the handrail before descending.

You can probably guess what happened next. On the slippery floor, my feet flew out from underneath me. Stupidly I was more worried about my laptop, which went flying to the third floor landing as I started sliding backwards down the stairs - again. I tried to relax but I was angry at myself for letting this happen again, and once more I could not stop myself from tumbling all the way down. I hit the bottom landing, letting out a barrage of curses. I had sprained my left ankle badly the month before, and so had favored my right side on the fall, whacking my right hand hard against the metal railing. My right pinky was quickly turning deep purple and I was afraid I had broken it. My right ankle was throbbing as well. but fortunately that seemed to be the only damage done.

My mother no longer lived in the city. My fiance, a doctor, was at work, an hour away in New Jersey. When I managed to get myself off the ground, I called him immediately to ask what to do about my finger. Since I could still move it completely, despite its beginning to stiffen up, he told me how to create a temporary splint with tape and two plastic knives to keep the swelling down until he could look at it later, along with my foot. I was hurting all over from bruises and scrapes along my right side and back, so I spent most of the rest of the day crashed out on the sofa, cursing my stupidity. My fiance examined my finger later and determined I might have bruised or chipped a bone, but nothing was broken. Eventually it healed and I have just the slightest bump on the top of my right pinky to show for it.

But to top it off, my real estate broker called later that morning to reschedule the photography - so all of my panic and rushing about had been for nothing.

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I am extremely fortunate that I escaped two potentially fatal falls with just scrapes and bruises. Falls such as the ones I suffered could have easily resulted in broken bones or major head injuries. We often take for granted safety in the home, but it is truly a vital concern of which all should be aware.

Indeed, eventually I did go under contract to sell the property and the home inspector pointed out the safety risks of that staircase right away. Part of the repairs and maintenance I had to get done before the closing date was to install a full railing down the length of the stairs and to put rubber treads along them.

Updated: 12/12/2018, sockii
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sockii on 12/14/2018

Ha, yes, cats underfoot can be an unexpected safety hazard as well! I have several that love to position themselves right where I walk (or in the middle of the staircase). Love the darn things but one of these days I do worry I'm going to break my neck tripping over them!

dustytoes on 12/13/2018

Glad you survived both your stairway falls with minimal injuries. Stocking feet and wood floors don't go together well.
Here in Florida many houses are ranch style without any long staircases, and of course no basements. The two things that seem to be my biggest problem when it comes to tripping are area rugs and my cats.

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