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Stay-Safe Secrets for Seven Deck-the-Halls Pitfalls

Every year there are more falls from ladders, more fires and more food-related illnesses just before and during the holiday season.  Consult this guide for what you should look out for when greeting the season.   

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Margaret Keresteci should have known better. Working for a health organization that gathers statistics on injuries, she was well aware of the many mishaps that occur during the holidays.

Nevertheless, one winter she was so anxious to get her outside Christmas lights up that she hauled out a ladder-in the dark-climbed to the top and then leaned precariously to one side to hang the lights.

The next thing she knew, she was lying on the ground with two broken wrists and a gash to her head. No one was home, so in terrible pain, Keresteci made her way to a nearby house, where she summoned help by banging on the door with her elbow.
It was a dangerous-and embarrassing-incident for the Toronto-based manager of clinical registries at the Canadian Institute for Health Information, a nonprofit that collects and analyzes data relating to health, including injuries. “I know better now,” says Keresteci, who suffered permanent damage to one wrist as a result of her fall.

Her story is a kind of perfect storm of holiday hazards: over-the-top decorating, mind-altering stress, breakneck pace. It’s no wonder there are typically more falls from ladders, more fires and more food-related illnesses just before and during the holiday season than at other times of the year.

The good news is that most of these injuries are preventable. Here, then, is a guide to what you should look out for when greeting the season.

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1. Superhero Syndrome

1. Superhero Syndrome

Dr. Louis Francescutti, an emergency-room physician at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandria Hospital and a professor and injury researcher at the University of Alberta, says he treats injuries like Keresteci’s every year. “Whoever draws the Christmas shift usually has a story to tell,” he says. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, ladder injuries are so common that in 2005, in Ontario alone, they sent more than 900 people to hospital emergency rooms during November’s pre-Christmas cheer.

Stay-safe secrets: If you’re using a ladder outdoors, do so during daylight hours-and clear away snow or ice before setting it down. Use the Electrical Utilities Safety Association of Ontario’s safe-practice guide: Never stand on a rung higher than the fourth from the top, and don’t climb up or down while carrying anything. Instead, place lights or other items in a container and raise and lower them by rope, while maintaining three-point contact with the ladder: one hand/two feet or two hands/one foot.

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2. Partier's Remorse

2. Partier’s Remorse

You came, you saw, you drank. If you don’t usually overindulge in alcohol, your body is in for a shock: a painful hangover.

Stay-safe secrets: Holidays and al-cohol seem to go hand in hand. Catherine Hardman, executive director of Choices for Change, a Stratford, Ont.-based alcohol, drug and gambling counselling centre, offers these tips: Alternate alcoholic drinks with nonalcoholic ones, and forget the old one-drink-per-hour guideline for preventing hangovers; it isn’t reliable. Instead, have a beverage in your hand at all times (nonalcoholic, if you wish) so attentive friends and hosts will stop asking if they can get you another drink. Or, agree to be the designated driver. “That gives you an out,” says Hardman, “and people also respect that.” Moreover, you’ll have a holiday to remember-for all the right reasons.

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3. Ticker Trouble

3. Ticker Trouble

More people die of heart attacks over the holidays than during any other time of year. Part of the problem: Some heart-attack symptoms are similar to those of indigestion-another seasonal risk-and many people would rather blame their discomfort on gluttony than interrupt a party by dashing off to the ER. “But if you’ve lived your whole life without indigestion and, all of a sudden, you’re suffering from it, you need to think that it could be your heart,” warns Dr. Beth Abramson, a Toronto cardiologist and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

And the weather doesn’t help, either. Low temperatures, especially if coupled with snow shovelling, can be deadly. Cold can slow blood flow to the heart by tightening blood vessels (interestingly, nitroglycerine medication does the opposite), while exercise increases the heart’s need for blood and oxygen. Therefore, you may be in a situation where the supply of blood to the heart is reduced during a time of increased need-a recipe for a heart attack. “When you’re shovelling and breathing in cold air-especially if you’re overweight and out of shape, or have risk factors for heart disease-you’re putting yourself at risk,” says Abramson.

Then there’s “holiday heart syndrome,” a fast, irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation that can be caused by drinking too much alcohol in a short time.

Stay-safe secrets: Even doctors can’t be sure, by observation alone, when someone’s having a heart attack, so you’re probably not going to figure it out on your own. While pressure on the chest is the most common symptom, a heart attack doesn’t have to be of the dramatic, Hollywood variety. “Sudden chest, neck, throat, jaw or arm discomfort, or shortness of breath or nausea that comes out of the blue needs to be taken seriously,” says Abramson. Family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes and being overweight increase your risk.

“There are quick and simple tests that can be done in an emergency room to confirm whether you’re having a heart attack,” says Abramson. “When in doubt, assume the worst.”

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4. Smoke Alarm

4. Smoke Alarm

There’s no question Christmas trees are a fire hazard, but the biggest cause of home fires, by far, is cooking. (Blame the messenger if you will, but you’re the one who left the pot on the stove to answer the door.) Candles can wreak havoc as well. In Ontario alone, there were 13 fire fatalities in December 2005-almost twice the province’s monthly average-proving that the holiday season remains a perilous time for fires. “Some people have a tendency to light a candle and walk away,” says Janet O’Carroll, president of the Canadian Fire Safety Association.

Stay-safe secrets: Never, ever leave stovetop items unattended, and don’t leave candles burning in an empty room. When you do light candles, keep them far from the tree and other flammable items such as wrapping paper.

Make sure your Christmas-tree lights are approved by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA-look for the label), and throw out any sets with cracked bulb sockets or damaged wires. Finally, make sure your Christmas tree is watered daily.

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5. Stress Overload

5. Stress Overload

You’ve been waiting in line all day-for a seat in the food court, a parking spot, a copy of that bestselling book or a must-have toy. And there’s your endless to-do list, along with parties, arguments with the family and a busy work schedule. No wonder you’re stressed!

Stay-safe secrets: Simplify. Stop accepting every invitation and trying to see everyone during the holidays. “You’ll burn out,” says Paul Talbot, a Vancouver-based personal planner. And don’t try to outdazzle everyone with extravagant dinners, over-the-top decorating and expensive presents. “Christmas isn’t a competition,” says Talbot.

And start early: “Christmas comes on the same date every year, so it’s all about planning,” says Talbot, who recommends keeping a running list in your wallet of people you plan to buy presents for. That way, you can take advantage of sales throughout the year-and avoid the stress of overspending.

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6. Killer Turkeys

6. Killer Turkeys

According to Ben Chapman, who works with the University of Guelph’s Food Safety Network, “undercooked turkey is one of the top ten foods that make people sick.” But it’s not just the turkey: Stuffing absorbs the juices inside the bird, so it has to be as thoroughly cooked as the meat. Eggnog is also notorious for making people sick if it’s left unrefrigerated for too long or if it’s made with raw eggs (which can contain salmonella bacteria).

Edmonton’s Dr. Francescutti is all too familiar with holiday food miseries. “An entire family came in with food poisoning,” he says. “They all needed intravenous and rehydration.”

Stay-safe secrets: The Food Safety Network advises cooking an unstuffed turkey to 77°C (170°F) and a stuffed one to 82°C (180°F). Alternatively, cook the stuffing separately. Stuffed or not, always cook a turkey in a 163°C (325°F) oven. Never start cooking it in one place, transport it to another, then finish cooking there. For more safe turkey cooking tips, visit or call, toll-free, 1-866-503-7638.

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7. New-Toy Trouble

7. New-Toy Trouble

Every holiday seaon, Francescutti treats patients who need their hands or fingers stitched up after they’ve lost a vicious battle with clamshell packaging-the hard, moulded plastic that is sealed around the toy, tool or product you’re anxious to get at. “It’s mostly fathers I see who are trying to open packages for others-a little too quickly, sometimes,” he says.

Still, one teenager he treated was so excited about a new electronic gadget, he hastily tried to pry open the package with scissors. They slipped and impaled the palm of his hand, landing him in the emergency room.

Stay-safe secrets:
Francescutti advises an adult place the product on a countertop, then carefully run a sharp utility knife around the packaging. To safely get rid of this plastic-with its razor-sharp edges-don’t toss it into the kitchen garbage: Someone could later slice a hand pushing the trash down to compact it.

To help prevent injuries to children, remove the plastic packaging before wrapping their gifts.