We are now well into winter and definitely feeling the chill! South African homes are not well equipped to withstand the cold and we have to resort to various heating appliances to stay warm during winter. This is why structural fires and carbon monoxide poisoning are so common during the winter months. Below, I outline some safety tips on keeping warm in the home.
WHEN USING A GAS HEATER
- Always make sure the gas heater and especially the cylinder is completely turned off before going to bed or leaving the house.
- Always keep the room well ventilated to avoid carbon monoxide (CO) build up.
- Do not use outdoor gas heaters indoors, as they may produce more CO.
- Make sure all components of the heater are well maintained. Ensure the gas bottle is safely secured with no leaks.
- Natural gas is odourless. In order to identify leaks more easily manufacturers add chemicals to give it that distinctive rotten eggs smell. If you smell gas in your home turn off the gas cylinder and do not use an electric fan to try and remove the gas.
- When switching your gas heater on always start by first turning on a match or lighter and then opening the gas supply. When switching the heater off always turn the gas cylinder off first.
- Never move a gas heater whilst in use.
- Do not place anything on or over the heater, such as damp laundry items. This can result in a fire. Do not ever sit on a gas heater either as it could fall over.
- Do not use flammable liquids and/or aerosols near a gas heater. Do not use a gas heater in a room that has recently been painted.
- Make sure to keep all flammable items a safe one-metre away.
- Have smoke and CO detectors installed and test them regularly.
- Always keep a fire extinguisher in your home.
WHEN USING A FIREPLACE
- Keep a window slightly open. This will help prevent the room filling up with smelly smoke. It also prevents the build up of carbon monoxide (CO).
- Make sure the damper of your chimney is open so that the smoke can leave the house. Only close the damper once the fire is completely extinguished.
- Use dry wood and not wet or green wood. Wet and green wood cause more smoke.
- Clean out any ash from the previous fire. Thick layers of ash restrict the air supply to the fire and cause more smoke.
- Use smaller pieces of wood because these create less smoke.
- Remember to have your chimney cleaned once a year before the winter season. Animal nests and excess soot can block the escape of smoke.
- Never leave a fire in the fireplace unattended. Always make sure it is completely extinguished before going to bed and/or leaving the house.
- Make sure the area around the fireplace is clear of potentially flammable items such as books, curtains and furniture. Keep a safe one-metre distance.
- Keep fireplace tools and accessories such as firelighters, matches and lighters out of a child’s reach.
- Use safety screens so your children can’t get burnt by hot flying embers or by touching the hot glass of a closed fireplace.
- Have smoke and CO detectors installed in your house and test them regularly.
- Always keep a fire extinguisher in your home!
CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING
It may seem counter-productive to keep a window open when you are trying to keep your home warm, but this is extremely important if you are burning a fuel, such as gas, paraffin, coal or wood to generate heat.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless and odourless gas produced by the incomplete combustion of these carbon-containing fuels. When there is too much CO in the air your body replaces the oxygen attached to red blood cells in the blood, with carbon monoxide. This is because the affinity between haemaglobin (Hb) (in the red blood cells) and carbon monoxide is much stronger than the affinity between Hb and oxygen. This can be extremely dangerous and lead to hypoxia, irreversible brain damage and eventually death.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
If carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected you need to move the victim into fresh air, either by opening all the doors and windows or getting the person outside. This will allow some oxygen to start displacing the carbon monoxide. Definitive management is however in hospital with high flow 100% oxygen so you need to call an ambulance right away.
Some of you may have electric heaters in your homes. These are safer than using gas and fire but still not 100% safe. Electric heaters use a lot of electricity so they can easily overload circuits and cause power failures or fires.
You should never plug in more than one electrical device into the same outlet as the heater to prevent overheating and overloading. To prevent electric shocks electric heaters should not be used in rooms where moisture builds up such as bathrooms and kitchens. There is also a fire risk if flammable items such as fabric come into contact with electric heaters that have hot elements and the electric bar heaters pose an additional burn risk.
Whatever heating methods you use this winter none of them are guaranteed safe, so remember to take the necessary precautions. It is important that you teach your children about fire safety from a young age. If your little ones do get thermal burns from poking fires and other heating elements follow the principles of first aid.
To find out more about management of thermal burns you can read my previous post: https://www.oneaid.co.za/baking-with-your-little-ones-safety-and-tips-to-taking-care-of-thermal-burns/. It is also recommended that you develop a fire escape plan and make sure your children know how to safely get out of the house in the event of a fire.