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Don't Fall for Christmas Lights: Illuminating Safety in Holiday Decorating

Whether you just plan to wrap a few lights around the trees in your front yard or harbor a grand, Griswoldian vision of installing enough holiday sparkle to keep the neighbors awake at night, take heed of what emergency room doctors already all know too well: Installing holiday lights can be hazardous to your health.

“It’s such a great time of the year, but then we see a mix of different injuries related to the holiday season,” says Dr. Michael Hocker, chief of emergency medicine at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. “We see a lot of people falling off ladders.” That’s especially worrisome when fall victims are older, more unstable individuals, since their injuries tend to be more severe than those suffered by their younger counterparts, Hocker adds. But people of all ages, including kids, are exposed to the perils of preparing for the season.

“About 200 people a day suffer decoration-related injuries this time of year,” says Patty Davis, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a governmental agency that seeks to safeguard people from consumer-product related risks. In November and December of last year, an estimated 13,000 people were treated in emergency rooms around the country for injuries tied to holiday lights, Christmas trees, ornaments and other decorations, according to the CPSC.

A study published in September in the journal Injury found that, in the worst cases, falls while installing Christmas lights can be life-altering, leaving individuals with traumatic brain injuries and the inability to live independently. These falls can even be deadly.

The study’s co-author, Dr. Chad Ball, a trauma and cancer surgeon at the University of Calgary-affiliated Foothills Medical Centre in Alberta, says he has over and again witnessed injuries resulting from holiday decorating at the hospital's trauma center. "I’ve seen a lot of folks in the fall that were injured while installing lights, particularly Christmas lights,” says Ball.

For clinicians, he says, it can be an emotional experience treating people for devastating, preventable injuries during what should be a festive time of year. Among the most severe cases, which the Injury study evaluated, the average length of hospital stay was more than two weeks. “Five percent of [patients] died and a significant number required critical care and operative intervention,” he says. Beyond bumps, bruises and broken bones, the patients who suffered the worst falls – often older men – sustained head and spinal cord injuries, as well as internal bleeding, including from the liver, spleen and pelvis.

Anecdotally, Ball adds that when he talks to people about hanging Christmas lights, he frequently hears tales of “near misses” that didn’t require an ER admission or involve severe injury, but very easily could have. Though not covered in the Injury study, he says these close calls further highlight the dangers. “I think without question this issue … is a lot more common than the paper would elucidate.”

So how can you safely light up your home without landing in the hospital?

  • Hire out if you can afford it. Particularly if you’re planning an over-the-top, extravagant array of holiday illuminations, think about hiring a pro to do it, so you’re not exposed to the fall risk.
  • Assess your physical abilities and limitations. Hocker advises anyone with balance issues or taking blood thinners – medications that increase the risk of bleeding should an injury arise – to avoid climbing ladders. Individuals with such risk factors should similarly avoid working from heights, including on roofs.
  • Survey the weather. If DIYing, consider: Do you really need to install lights when it’s 10 degrees below freezing and icy? “Treat the weather with respect,” Ball says. That means rescheduling your decorating efforts if a winter storm or other nasty outdoor condition could make the experience dangerous.
  • Make sure you have firm footing. Falls can occur from roofs and railings, and experts say they commonly involve a tumble from a ladder. So, ladder safety is a must:
    • First, choose a ladder that’s long enough for the job, Davis says: “That is, one that extends at least 3 feet over the roofline or working surface.”
    • Put the ladder only on level, firm ground, and make sure it can support your weight.
    • Set up the ladder at a 75 degree angle, and away from doors that could be opened or power lines.
    • Have a helper hold the ladder.

In addition, the CPSC offers other ways to make holiday prep less fraught with danger. Among them: Throw out damaged light sets and get new ones if any lights are broken, sockets are cracked, wires are bare or frayed, or there are loose connections.
Keep candles on stable, heat-resistant surfaces and always extinguish the flame before leaving a room or going to bed. Also, keep lit candles away from evergreens and other decorations, and take care to make sure children aren’t in harm’s way. Keep the Christmas tree watered, too, advises the CPSC, since a dry tree can be tinder for house fires.

Finally, be careful when you get out holiday decorations as well.

“I can’t tell you … how many times, [we’ll see patients who went] into their attic to get their Christmas tree or Christmas tree lights and then fall through the center boards or the beams up in their attic,” Hocker says. “I’ve had young mothers essentially do that – fall right on their head and then have traumatic brain injury or, even worse, death.” He emphasizes: “Make sure that you have plywood down between your studs, so you don’t fall [through].”

Experts say the point is not to douse holiday spirits with sobering reminders (though be careful not to drink too much either). It's quite the opposite. Alerting people of the dangers can help keep the festivities flowing and the accidents absent. Says Hocker: “The holidays are supposed to be a good time." Not decked with avoidable tragedies.

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