Deck the Halls, but Do It Safely

The best way to avoid potential shocks, fires and injuries while installing and maintaining decorations is through inspection, precaution and following instructions.

December 08, 2014 | By ​Paul Netter


Lights, candles … safe actions.

It might not have the pizzazz of the famous Hollywood film cue, but it should have a certain cachet when it comes to safely installing and maintaining decorations this holiday season.

In fact, the potential shocks, fires and injuries extend far beyond lights and candles and range from decorating around power lines and utility poles to worn light strands and electrical cords.

Credit: Joseph Foulk and Ernesto Sanchez

The good news, however, is that decorating dangers can be minimized and eliminated through inspection, precaution and following instructions, according to Larry Pena, manager of Corporate Safety, Policy and Regulations at Southern California Edison (SCE).

For Pena, it starts with inspection.

“Before installing your decorative lighting, do a very good visual inspection,” he said. “Look for cracks, anything that’s frayed or missing insulation. If you find those conditions, it’s a good idea to get rid of it.”

People should also only use lights and cords bearing the Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or Intertek (ETL) labels of trusted independent organizations that ensure product safety and only use plastic zip cords when hanging them.

Pena is most emphatic when it comes to installing decorations, especially outdoors. He warns that decorations should never be attached to electrical equipment such as power lines and poles and that any such practice is a potential danger for the public and utility crews and could lead to outages.

“The most important thing is to stay away from power lines,” he said, citing instances of people throwing decorations into trees, but making contact with power lines. “And if you’re going to get close, never get closer than 10 feet to them.”

Outdoor decorations should be marked for outdoor use and always use Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI)-protected outlets outside.

Moisture is crucial to Christmas tree safety. Just ask Keith Mora, an inspector with the LA County Fire Department, who finds tree safety very challenging. U.S. fire departments respond to about 230 home fires annually that start with Christmas trees, causing an average of six deaths, 22 injuries and $18.3 million in property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

The fire association said electrical problems contributed to 32 percent of those fires, which is why the trees should be kept at least three feet away from heat sources, such as space heaters.

“A tree will go up like a Roman candle,” said Mora. “First, try to buy it from a place that keeps them watered for the longest life. Then you should water it as much as possible, keep check of the branches for dryness, be careful with the cords and lights you use on it and never leave the lighting on when you’re not home.”

December is the leading month for home-candle fires, according to the fire association, and the reason safety experts recommend battery-operated candles with decorations.

Falls from ladders — and rooftops — largely account for the 5,800 people treated annually at hospitals for decorating injuries, according to the fire association.  

Electrical accidents while climbing can be thwarted by using wooden or fiberglass ladders instead of metal ones, which conduct electricity.

“Electricity enhances our decorations during the holiday season,” said Pena. “But we need to practice safety and awareness to make sure the temporary connections involved don’t spoil our holiday season.”

Topics: Safety