New research reveals serious DIY risks to men over 50

Recovered ladder fall patient Paul Molloy, pictured with his wife Betty at their Greystanes home.

Men aged 50-plus are putting their quality of life on the line by not assessing the risks before doing home improvement projects, according to new research from Westmead Hospital and UNSW Sydney.

Westmead Hospital trauma director, Associate Professor Jeremy Hsu said his department regularly treats people with serious injuries from falls at home, and staff noticed many were men in their 50s and 60s who had fallen from ladders.

“We know a lot about the frequency of falls and how serious they are but what we wanted to know is why they are occurring and how we can prevent them,” A/Prof Hsu said. “What makes this study unique is it examines the why, not just the what and how.”

Westmead Hospital trauma director, Associate Professor Jeremy Hsu, saved Paul’s life with titanium plates inserted into his rib cage. Paul was just the second patient at Westmead Hospital to undergo this procedure.

That question led nurse educator Katherine Schaffarczyk examined data from 86 incidents at Westmead Hospital’s emergency department, involving men aged 50-plus suffering a non-occupational fall at home.

Nearly half of these hospitalisations were the result of a ladder slipping or collapsing when men were doing general home maintenance, gardening and cleaning. Two-thirds of the patients received multiple injuries and one-quarter suffered severe trauma.

X-ray image of Paul’s broken ribs

Mrs Schaffarcyzk conducted in-depth follow up interviews with 12 men and seven spouses to get more information about the cause and impact of the incidents.

The main factors leading to the fall included complacency, lack of assessment of risk factors such as footwear, the surface the ladder was placed on, ensuring someone was home, and recognising their physical limitations.

Many of those interviewed reported life-changing impacts for themselves and their families, even from minor trauma such as a simple fracture.

Paul Molloy came close to death in 2013 when he fell from the top rung of a ladder while installing a blind at home alone, suffering broken ribs, a punctured lung and fractured shoulder.

The Greystanes resident, aged 71 at the time, was unable to cry out for help and endured an agonising 10-minute crawl into his home to call triple-zero.

Westmead Hospital nurse educator Katherine Schaffarczyk

“I was put into an induced coma at Westmead Hospital and spent three days in intensive care. Dr Hsu said if I hit my head I probably would’ve died,” Paul said.

“The recovery process was terrible. I was in a lot of pain and traumatised by the memory of being alone, thinking that was the end for me. I’m still squeamish reliving it today.

“I’ve told many friends and family what I’ve gone through and they’re extra careful now. Many people don’t necessarily take care or think anything could happen to them.”

Mrs Schaffarczyk said the research highlighted the need for community injury prevention campaigns about the dangers of falls from ladders from seemingly low-risk everyday activities.

“Many men overestimate their abilities, particularly as they get older and don’t want to stop doing the things they’ve always done,” she said.

“But the sad reality is these incidents can lead to serious injuries that have long-lasting impacts on the lives of men and their families.”

Paul Molloy now shares ladder safety advice with friends and family.

Mrs Schaffarczyk said the research identified several preventative measures to collaboratively explore, including safety equipment such as gutter hooks to be included with the sale of all ladders.

Here are some tips for avoiding a fall:

  • Stop to assess the risks before doing any home maintenance, gardening and cleaning
  • Never climb a ladder or do other risky behaviour while home alone
  • Wear proper safety equipment including non-slip shoes and well-fitting clothing
  • Upgrade your equipment, especially ladders, and always follow the manufacturer’s advice

This week is Men’s Health Week, an annual initiative to promote the health of men and boys. You can read more here about Men’s Health Week here: