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Preventing Falls while Decking the Halls

Preventing Falls while Decking the Halls

U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense
Edgewood, Maryland

On a crisp December evening, I noticed some of the Christmas lights on our house were out. The unlit strand was along the trim in an area not for the faint of heart. In that spot, the trim rises sharply, perhaps 48-50 degrees, to an apex about 30 feet above the driveway. I have an extension ladder that easily reaches that area, so I wasn’t too concerned about making the repair. It was getting dark, however, so I decided to wait until the following day.

After my morning coffee and catching the news, it was time to head outside to fix those bulbs that were interfering with my quest to be one of the better-decorated homes on our street. It was chilly, so I put on my gloves, winter hat and warm coat. Because the job wouldn’t take much time, I didn’t bother to change out of my slippers. If I’d only known how bad that decision would be …

I carried the ladder from the garage and leaned it against the house. I then ensured it had a good approach angle and was firmly seated on the driveway via the rubber gripper thingies on the bottom. (I am sure they have a proper name, but that’s what I call them.) Before grabbing the replacement bulbs, I gave the ladder one last shake to ensure it was sturdy.

As I climbed up, I could really feel the ladder’s rungs on my feet. While my slippers were warm, they were also soft and flimsy. They definitely did not offer a firm sole like a running shoe or boot. This should have been the first sign that it was time for me to put it in reverse and get a better shoe. Nevertheless, I continued to cautiously climb the ladder.

Once up top, I began troubleshooting the problem. Starting from one end of the dead strand, I pushed, wiggled, reseated and inspected every bulb. Of course, the cause of the problem was something trivial. It turned out that one of the bulbs had worked itself loose. Upon reseating the bulb into the housing, all of the lights came back on. As I fiddled with the bulbs, a light mist began to fall. A perfect storm was brewing and I didn’t even know it.

Remember how I said earlier that I could feel the ladder’s rungs on my feet? Well, on the way down I adjusted my footing a bit. Rather than standing on the rung with the middle of my foot, I stood on the ball of my foot, which was more comfortable. I continued down the ladder using only one-third of my foot on the now slippery rungs while wearing a shoe that did not possess the appropriate tread or support.

I’m sure you can guess what happened next. I slipped down a couple of rungs before finally falling off from about 7 feet up, landing on my right hip and forearm. When I hit the ground, I just laid there for a moment, taking in the fact that it was cold and the mist was refreshing. But I knew I had hurt myself pretty badly. The shock of the impact resonated through my entire body.

Although my injuries were not life threatening, they were painful. I severely sprained my right ankle and bruised my left heel and right hip bone. Once the bruising really set in a day or so later, it stretched from above my waistline to behind my knee. The bruising also ran from my groin and around my thigh. The bruising on my foot wrapped around my ankle and made my two smallest toes nearly black. My right forearm also suffered some bruising, but it was nothing like the other parts of my body.

After seeking medical treatment, my doctor was amazed I didn’t break anything. With that said, I was in some sort of pain for about a month. I noticed in the weeks following the accident that I didn’t have as much flexibility in my ankle. It wasn’t debilitating or anything, just something that was bothersome. Otherwise, everything else seemed to be in good repair.

So, what’s the take-home message of my story? Well, if you’re going to do a job, make sure you do it right all the way. While I wore warm clothes and made sure the ladder was set up safely, I took a shortcut with my footwear and it ended up biting me. I could have really hurt myself. By Army standards, this was a mishap. I was injured, received medical care and was out of work for two days. I consider the event a near miss, however, because I should have broken something or suffered a traumatic head injury.

As you’re decorating your house this holiday season, remember to dress for the task at hand. And if you believe footwear isn’t important, think again. Always wear the appropriate footwear for your activity. It may save your life.


According to the Electrical Safety Foundation, nearly 6,000 people are treated annually in emergency rooms for injuries sustained in falls involving holiday decorations. The American Ladder Institute (ALI) offers the following tips to keep you safe when decorating your house this holiday season:

  • Never climb a ladder in inclement weather. This includes snow, wind and rain. For those who live in wintry climates, this can be a challenge — but it is necessary to prevent ladder accidents. Wear slip-resistant shoes when you climb, even if there isn't rainfall.
  • Choose the right-sized ladder for the job. If you will be decorating your roof or other tall surfaces, be sure the ladder is long enough so you can safely reach without stepping on the top two rungs.
  • Inspect your equipment before climbing. Be sure your ladder isn't rusted or defective in any way prior to climbing. Most people only use their ladders a couple times a year, so it is crucial to make sure it is in proper working condition prior to climbing.
  • Save the eggnog and any other holiday spirits until decorating is complete. Any amount of alcohol can impair your balance and judgment — two things that are vital to ladder safety.
  • Position your ladder on firm, level ground. You can also use leg levelers to ensure stability.
  • Always maintain three points of contact while climbing. This means, at all times, either two hands and one foot are touching the ladder, or two feet and one hand.
  • Do not overreach while on the ladder. If you need to stretch to reach something, it is safest to climb down and move the ladder closer. Overreaching is a leading cause of ladder injuries, according to the ALI Citation Survey, and one of the most dangerous. Remember, taking additional time to decorate and being cautious is worth your safety!
  • 3 December 2023
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 240
  • Comments: 0