Home renovation: Keeping it safe

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Australian's love a bit of home renovation DIY. And with aircraft-hangar sized hardware stores on every corner and The Block on TV, there's no shortage of inspiration.

But whether it's a coat of paint or a building a deck, home renovators taking the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach should be aware of the hazards and risks involved in home improvement projects.

Before getting started, it's essential to check whether there will be exposure to harmful materials such as asbestos and lead, and whether existing gas fittings and electrical wiring need upgrading. And specialist work, such as plumbing, gas fitting, or electrical must be carried out by a qualified professionali.

When in doubt, seek help and advice from a professionals on how to handle dangerous materials in the home.


Australian homes built before the 1990s may contain asbestos material. Asbestos - a fibrous material that occurs in the environment - was used because it has many properties desirable in a building material. It is resistant to fire, is strong, and has low electrical conductivity. It was also inexpensiveii.

However, asbestos is an extremely harmful material made up of microscopic fibres that can cause lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma if inhaled. What's worrying is that because symptoms of these diseases don't usually surface until 20-30 years after initial exposure, households may continue to be vulnerable to the effects of the material without even knowing itiii.

Asbestos is present in many different forms in homes. Many will be aware of asbestos used in fibre cement sheeting or 'fibro'. But asbestos was also used in many other home building products including corrugated asbestos cement sheets used for roofing and fences, 'fibro' weatherboards, insulation such as lagging on pipework, and as a backing on vinyl flooring. And if an asbestos-based material has been used in the construction of a home, discarded off cuts and waste material may also be present underneath housesii.

To avoid these dangers, renovators should have their house inspected for asbestos before commencing work. Usually, home renovations requiring Development Application (DA) approval will be surveyed for hazardous materialsiii. Removal of asbestos should be carried out by licensed and trained professionals. Local regulations must be adhered with for removal and disposal.


Lead poisoning can cause short and long-term health problems, such as hearing impairment, kidney damage, cerebral palsy, and osteoporosis in later yearsiv. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because it interferes with the production of blood cells and the absorption of calcium, which stunts their growth and brain developmentv. Acute exposure to lead may induce vomiting, cause headaches, and seizuresvi.

Before 1965 domestic paint contained significant amounts of lead, up to 50%. This was reduced to 1% in 1965, 0.25% in 1992 and 0.1% in 1997. Carrying out renovation or paint removal using techniques such as blasting, burning, dry scraping, or dry sanding can expose the lead in the paint. During the work lead dust will be in the air and the dust and paint chips can remain in the home, and can be difficult to fully remove once dispersedvii.

To help renovators avoid lead exposure, the Australian government's Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities has published the Lead Alert - Six Step Guide to Painting Your Home. Guidelines in the booklet include tips on how to test for and remove lead-based paint, and how to contain and dispose of wastevii. It's recommended that large or more complicated jobs should be handled by a professional tradesman.

During renovation work lead may also be found in flashing, pipe joints and even dust accumulated over time in ceilings and wall cavities.

Electrical dangers

Inside or outside the home, electrical work should always be carried out by a qualified electrician. This includes installing or moving lights, switches or power points, rearranging electrical wires, or replacing frayed cords on appliancesviii. Before renovation begins, make sure to get a professional to do an electrical safety check of your home. When work has commenced, ensure you check safety switches regularlyviii.

Hazards that may cause trips and falls

During a renovation job, always make sure you don't leave work tools lying around to prevent tripping over cords, leads, or cables. When necessary, make sure you are wearing protective clothing and appropriate safety equipment, including enclosed shoes, masks, gloves, coveralls, and a respiratorvii.

Wearing protective clothing and safety equipment when performing DIY jobs around the home may reduce the chance of exposure to hazardous materials.

Taking care of insurance

Before you begin a home renovation you should contact your home insurer to advise of the work and also to check that your home and contents insurance policy will cover damage or theft to your home during the period of constructionix. And once your renovation is finished the value of your home may have increased and you should consider adjusting your home insurance policy.

i Government of South Australia, 2011, Renovations and Extensions, http://www.sa.gov.au/subject/Housing,+property+and+land/Building+and+development/Building,+renovating+or+extending+a+home/Renovations+and+extensions#General_things_to_consider

ii Australian Government, Identifying Asbestos in Your Home, http://www.comcare.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/111084/Identifying_asbestos_in_your_home.pdf

iii Home Design Directory, 2012, Be asbestos alert when you renovate, http://www.homedesigndirectory.com.au/articles/be-asbestos-alert-when-you-renovate.shtml#.UQriIPKcA4c

iv Lead Action News, 1998, Health Impacts of Lead Poisoning, http://www.lead.org.au/fs/fst7.html

v Medicine Plus, 2013, Lead Poisoning, National Institute of Health, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002473.htm

vi Better Health Channel, 2013, Lead Poisoning, State Government Victoria, http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Lead_poisoning

vii Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, 2012, Lead alert facts: Lead in house paint, Australian Government, http://www.environment.gov.au/atmosphere/airquality/publications/housepaint.html

viii Ausgrid, 2012, DIY and home renovation, http://www.ausgrid.com.au/Common/Safety/Safety-around-the-home/Do-it-yourself-and-home-renovation.aspx#.USVfOh1vCa9

ix Fair Trading, 2010, Insurance, NSW Government, http://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/Tenants_and_home_owners/Home_building_and_renovating/Insurance.html