HO...HO...HOLD the decorations?

News / General
By Anne Rutherford

Is that rooftop light display worth a deadly tumble, asks KHSC trauma expert

Heading up a ladder to wrap a few festive lights around your favourite 20-foot spruce? Or to get started on a dazzling Clark Griswold light display? Consider this first:  installing holiday lights can be hazardous to your health. It can even be deadly.

Dr. Wiley Chung, a thoracic surgeon and trauma team leader at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, says the number of people tumbling off ladders and landing in the Emergency Department and in the Operating Room has been ramping up the last few years, especially during late autumn when people—most often middle-aged men—are gung-ho about climbing skywards to clean gutters and string Christmas lights.

“This is the time of year when we see more rib and spinal fractures, severe head injuries and lung and chest wall fractures,” he says. “These are usually preventable injuries.

"People need to understand that falling from ladders or rooftops can result in more than bumps and bruises. Dropping even 10 feet can be a life-altering event for a lot of those who fall. Their injuries can result in quadriplegia, severe brain injury and even death.”

He ticks off sensible reasons why people should resist the urge to decorate on high: being two to three stories off the ground, having no safety equipment and reaching up at awkward angles while juggling strands of lights. And that’s not even factoring in windy or icy weather conditions.

“You’re very vulnerable up there,” he says. “You’re putting yourself at risk for debilitating injury, surgery, a lengthy hospital stay and loss of independence. In some cases, you might not even make it to the hospital.”

Chung says people can just as easily showcase a sparkling light display on shrubs, railings or fences. Consider projection lighting or swapping out a regular porch light with green or red bulbs. If your heart is set on the Griswold touch, he recommends hiring a professional who has the right equipment and expertise.

For the DIY crowd, practicing ladder safety is critical:

  • angle the ladder at a ratio of 1:4 (one metre out away from a wall for every 4 metres of height)
  • position the ladder on a firm, level surface
  • maintain three-point contact with the ladder (two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand)
  • avoid leaning or reaching away from the ladder; instead move the ladder to the appropriate spot
  • on an extension ladder, never stand higher than the fourth step from the top
  • never substitute a stepladder for an extension ladder

The bottom line, according to Chung?  "Always think prevention before intervention.”