Jack Knox: Risking life and limb for the holidays

Given the weather forecast and time of year, chances are this is the weekend you put up your Christmas lights.

I’ll call 911.

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Really, I know successful orthopedic surgeons who swear they would be picking pop bottles out of ditches were it not for the combined effects of holiday decorations and ladders.

Which is what came to mind after stumbling across (without hurting myself) a 2014 study showing that over a 10-year period, a single Calgary hospital treated at least 40 people for life-threatening injuries sustained while putting up Christmas decorations.

The average age of the injured was 55. All but one was male. Two-thirds of them got hurt while falling off a ladder, while the remainder managed to make it all the way onto the roof before taking the header that landed them in hospital, where they stayed for an average of 15 days.

Is it wrong that I’m envisioning Homer Simpson right now? Yes, yes it is. Sue me.

> Got lights? Add your display to our Christmas Lights Map!

I chortle despite my own experience as a 15-year-old who, with the enthusiastic encouragement of my father (pro tip: never tell your dad that you’re “bored”), once climbed 30 feet up in 30 below weather (this story grows by one foot and one degree with each retelling) to string lights along the roof.

By the time I reached the very top rung, reaching for the peak like Michael Jordan stretching for a lay-up, I was trembling so badly that the ladder shot out from under my boots, leaving me pedalling the air like Wile E. Coyote.

Fortunately, I managed to slow my descent by slamming my face into the side of the house, limiting the damage to a broken nose. “Was that ever cool, do it again,” declared the neighbour kid.

True story.

It’s not just outdoor decorating that causes Christmas carnage, of course. News archives catalogue unending examples of Griswold-level mayhem. Eyes poked out by Christmas tree needles. Electrical fires. Conifer-candle conflagrations. Children squished by brand-new big-screen TVs. Innocent-looking mistletoe berries, holly and poinsettias that prove as poisonous/irritating as your mother-in-law. A wide range of festive ornaments inserted in mouths, noses, ears and less probable orifices.

Last year, the journal Advances in Integrative Medicine published a tongue-in-cheek but scientifically rigorous Australian-German study that estimated 173,405 Americans were injured by Christmas trees, lights, decorations and gifts between 2007 and 2016.

Add to them the 277 children who were hurt either falling off Santa’s lap or fleeing him in terror (actually, the study was careful to say they were injured while interacting with “Santa impersonators”) and the numbers are ho-ho-horrifying.

Predictably, officialdom urges us to take care. This week, WorkSafe B.C. issued a list of pointers aimed at those whose idea of ladder safety consists solely of “hold my eggnog.”

Make sure your ladder can extend at least a metre beyond the upper landing, it said. Keep it at least three metres from power lines. Maintain at least three points of contact (two feet and one hand, two hands and a foot) at all times.

Island Health’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Richard Stanwick, had a similar naughty-and-nice list: “If you are planning to install outdoor lights, make sure your ladder is safe and check for power lines first. I have known people to fall when extending lights beyond their reach. Make sure you have a working smoke detector to prevent household fires. Water your trees regularly and keep them away from heat and flames. No one wants to unwrap singed gift boxes during the holidays.” (Stanwick resisted the urge to follow up “make sure your tree is secure” with “validate its sense of self-worth.”)

To really gain our attention, the health authority should resurrect the old Wall of Pain at Royal Jubilee Hospital where, 20 years ago, patients would post handwritten cautionary advice related to the injuries that brought them to the emergency department. (Real examples: “Never place a flaming oven mitt under your armpit.” “Don’t get in a fight with pit bulls.” “Don’t try to drive your friend to hospital if you are from England.” “Do not attempt pole dancing after a few drinks. … Leave it to the professionals.”)

A Christmas version would be sure to be instructive/ entertaining. Try not to go first this weekend.


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