JERRY L. ZINGG
Marine Corps Base Quantico
It’s that time of year where many of us are caught up in holiday routines and tend to take seasonal hazards for granted. Doing so, however, can mean the difference between a happy holiday and tragedy. Statistics show that mishaps occur more frequently during the holiday period. A little common sense, combined with some advanced planning, can help accident-proof your holidays, making them safer for you, your family members and visitors.
The National Fire Prevention Association estimates 3,000 Americans die in home fires annually, with nearly 40 percent of those deaths occurring between December and February. The NFPA also reports that during 2006-10, Christmas trees were the direct cause of about 500 home fires each year. So, before you pick out a Christmas tree this year, it’s important to know a few tips to ensure you make a safe selection.
If you want a natural tree, pick a fresh one. Make sure it is deep green, has a strong pine scent and its needles don’t fall off when you touch it. When you get it home, cut about two inches off the bottom at an angle. Fill the tree stand with water and keep it full every day. Never place a tree near a fireplace, radiators or heaters, and keep it away from doorways and the room’s main traffic areas. Be aware that some artificial trees can also burn, so check them for flammability and follow all included safety precautions.
When it comes to decorating with electric lights, take special precautions such as never hanging them on metal trees. Avoid overloading outlets with electric decorations, and replace cords that show signs of wear. Just because the lights worked fine last year doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good now. This is especially true for outdoor lights and cords that are subjected to rain, ice and strong winds.
Never run cords under the carpet, and turn off all decorative lights before leaving the house or going to bed. A Christmas Eve fire in Dallas a few years ago took the lives of a 31-year-old mother and her four young daughters. The cause of the fire was traced to an overloaded extension cord, which ignited their decorated tree.
If decorating with candles, ensure you keep them at least 12 inches from anything that can burn such as drapes, towels or clothing. Candles should always be in a sturdy holder and placed where they cannot be knocked down. Never leave a lit candle unattended and always supervise children near any flame. Battery-operated flameless candles — which can look, smell and feel like the real thing — are an attractive alternative for some decorators.
It’s also a good idea to consider the age of your decorations. If you’ve had them for many years, it might be time to invest in a newer, safer set. Before regulations in the late 1970s, items such as tinsel, artificial icicles, glitter and painted figures often contained dangerous levels of lead, chromium, antimony, cobalt and even arsenic. Angel Hair (artificial snow) contained glass filings, and some brands were even comprised of asbestos fibers. Fire salts, which produce a multicolored effect when sprinkled on a log fire, contain heavy metals that may cause severe stomach distress if ingested.
Fireplaces and space heaters are also popular during the holidays. Keep these tips in mind if you plan to use yours:
• Before starting a fire, remove all combustible decorations from the area and be sure the flue is open.
• Keep a screen in front of the fire to ensure sparks are contained.
• Have your fireplace and chimney inspected and cleaned on a regular basis.
• Never allow a fire to smolder overnight.
• Use space heaters with great caution, placing them at least three feet from combustible materials such as blankets.
• Ventilate fuel heaters as recommended by the manufacturer. Install a carbon monoxide detector near the fuel heater.
• Keep a fire extinguisher handy.
If you allow smoking in your home, provide ashtrays for the smokers and ensure cigarette and cigar butts are fully extinguished before emptying into the trash. Many house fires occur after holiday parties, when a lit cigarette falls into a sofa or bed and smolders undetected while everyone is asleep. A multi-purpose fire extinguisher is a good investment and should be kept handy in case of fire. Make sure you and your family members learn how to use extinguishers properly. A smoke detector is another potentially life-saving device every home should have. The NFPA recommends installing smoke alarms on every level of your home, including the basement, making sure that there is an alarm outside every separate sleeping area. Test alarms at least monthly by pushing the test button. Also remember to have an escape route in the event of a fire. It’s important everyone in the house knows the route and practices it.
Slips, Trips and Falls
Between icy sidewalks and the increased use of ladders to hang decorations, slip, trip and fall injuries are another concern during the holidays. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries in the home, claiming 6,600 lives each year. Placing night lights throughout your home will help guide the way in the middle of the night. Toys and other items that could be a trip hazard should also be put away so they don’t obstruct the walking path. If using extension cords, never place them in walkways. Outdoors, when there’s ice or snow, shovel paths, put down sand or salt and make sure the area is lit. In addition, be sure to use extra care when hanging outdoor lights and decorations from the top of a ladder.
Even the smallest revelers aren’t immune to holiday hazards. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that 262,300 children were treated in hospital emergency rooms in 2011 due to toy-related injuries. Parents should always supervise their child’s play and expect the unexpected. Inspect toys regularly to ensure all safety devices remain in place. If Santa brings a bicycle, skateboard, roller blades or scooter this Christmas, make sure he also provides properly fitted safety helmets.
Despite widespread publicity about the dangers of drinking and driving, traffic accidents and deaths increase dramatically during the holidays. If you are hosting a holiday party that will be serving alcohol, try to discourage guests from drinking too much. Discuss a sober designated driver plan ahead of time and be ready to call a cab or arrange a ride for those too drunk to drive. Also provide a variety of non-alcoholic drinks such as juices, tea, sodas and bottled water. Never force alcoholic drinks on anyone. Starchy foods such as cheeses and crackers which will help absorb the alcohol, so be sure to include them in your holiday spread. Close the bar an hour before the party ends and provide a place to sleep for those individuals that may have had too much to drink. Remember, time is the only true sobering method.
Be smart this holiday season. Follow the safety advice provided with the equipment you use, merchandise you buy and activities you plan. Keep your home, family, guests and yourself safe and healthy this and every holiday season!