Avoiding Accidental Expenses

by Sharon Lynn Campbell, M.A.


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I like to save money. In fact, in some ways, I am a certified cheapskate as well as a Certified Safety Professional. However, when it comes to everyday safety, I have a different yardstick when it comes to purchasing safety items: Does this cost more or less than an emergency room visit or funeral?

There are many times when it is tempting to take the cheap way out at the expense of life and limb. For instance, homeowners have the delightful job of mowing the lawn. Most of us have gasoline lawn mowers, and what do you do to store the gas? You get a nice, cheap plastic gas can, use it and think no more of it right up until the day when you are in a hurry because your critical in-laws are coming over and the lawn is almost done and the mower runs out of gas. You don't bother to let the mower cool off. Instead, you just unscrew the gas cap and start pouring gas. Some of it pours right onto the hot engine. Not surprisingly, it catches fire. You drop the plastic gas can, which keeps right on pouring out gasoline until it is empty and you are on fire, too.

If you had invested about $35 in a metal safety gas can, when you dropped it, the lid would have clamped down, gas stopped pouring out and you most likely would have been uninjured. (We'll discuss the merits of waiting until the engine cools off later.) And you know what? You only need to buy that $35 metal safety gas can once. Divide $35 by, say, 30 years of lawn mowing, and you are investing $1.16 per year in preventing emergency room visits, extraordinary pain and suffering for the burn victim and family, medical bills potentially in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next decades and/or a funeral, which typically runs around $5000 for us cheapskates and much more for less frugal folks.

Looking just at safety things that actually cost money (I'm using 2008 approximate purchase prices) for household use, my husband and I have invested in the following:

Metal safety gas can $35
4 smoke detectors, replace every decade $25/10 years
1 carbon monoxide detector $50
New batteries/sensor $50/every few years
2 folding stepladders $50
4 sets chemical splash goggles $ 5
2 sets of work gloves $10
4 household fire extinguishers $120/10 years

The total cost, if you buy these things new now, is just $245. I like to think that the reason for having the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors is self-explanatory, but if you don't get it, go talk to your local firefighters. The folding stepladders keep us from being tempted to use chairs to stand on. Chemical splash goggles are for using oven cleaner and anything else that advises eye protection and for frying bean curd or any other really wet food. (It only took one hot grease burn on my eyelid to convince me of the merit of using the goggles.) The fire extinguishers are only for use in escaping from a fire, and are good for about 10 years, but they need to be maintained. We've been married for 30 years, and the stepladders and gas can were a lot cheaper then.

You are looking at about $25 a year for the 10-year interval. What does it cost you to step into an emergency room? Or hold a funeral?

My husband and I go beyond this, spending money on impact goggles for when we work with power tools, a good extension ladder for rooftop excursions, and other safety equipment for do-it-yourself projects. But the vast majority of our efforts to stay alive and uninjured are free. For instance, when mowing the lawn, we have an ironclad rule: the mower engine must be cool enough to touch before refilling.

Because of my profession and upbringing, we know most of the home and recreational safety information. If you don't, I recommend Live Safely in a Dangerous World: How to Beat the Odds of Dying in an Accident by John C. Myre. It gives an overview of reasons for home and recreational safety and tips for living that safely. Take a look at it at safetytimes.com and realize that a $20 investment could easily save your life, your child's life, or even your pet's life. And you only need to get one once! (It makes a great gift for those folks you care about, though, so you may want more than one.)

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