Lewis Schwartz fell, suffering a collapsed lung, a bruised liver and four broken ribs, because he wanted to put up a few Christmas lights for the holidays.
“It was a 20-foot extension ladder and I was up about 10 feet,” Schwartz said. “I’m going to pay someone to put lights on our house this year.”
One of more than two dozen people whose holiday decorating accidents sent them to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth’s trauma center last year, Schwartz fell off a ladder Dec. 2 and ended up spending a week in the hospital.
In 2011, about 14,000 Americans were victims of holiday decoration-related injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Since 2009, those injuries have increased by 1,000 per year.
The increase wasn’t so great that to cause an investigation of the reasons but was significant enough that the commission wanted to make the public aware, spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
“We are very concerned about older homeowners who for years have done it themselves and still feel it’s their task to complete,” Wolfson said.
But even as the number of do-it-yourselfers getting hurt has risen, the number of companies that will do it for them has also increased, said Tanner Maxson, owner of christmaslightinstaller.com.
“We started in 2005 and there were some people doing it then, but not like it is now,” Maxson said. “These days it seems like a lot of lawn care companies are doing it, and small companies have blossomed into franchises. It used to be an income supplement, but for a lot of people it’s a main source of income.”
When the first wehangchristmaslights.com franchise started in Fort Worth several years ago, the competition was scarce, said Josh Trees, who started the company 17 years ago in San Diego.
Now there are more than 30 legitimate installation companies “and more people get into it every year,” Trees said. “We have 27 locations across the nation. We added 17 this year — a couple in Texas, New Jersey, Georgia, Washington.”
It’s all about the ladder
Trees not only teaches his franchise managers how to run the business, but he also teaches installers how to do it safely. It starts with being careful with ladders.
Schwartz said the ground was a little damp the day he fell.
“And that probably had something to do with the ladder slipping out from under me on the driveway,” Schwartz said.
Having one person hold a ladder so it can’t fall is a solution, said Dr. David Smith, medical director for the hospital’s trauma department.
“Always have two people so one can hold the ladder, just like the pros do, because it can prevent falls,” Smith said. “Falls while putting up Christmas lights can lead to lifelong crippling, pain and possibly death.”
Fall injuries aren’t coded according to their causes at John Peter Smith Hospital, but emergency department crews said there definitely is an increase at this time of year, a spokeswoman said.
“I actually just visited with a patient who’s at JPS because he fell while putting up Christmas decorations,” said Diana Carroll, the JPS spokeswoman. “He thinks the ladder just wasn’t set level and steady and it fell.”
Too few homeowners know how to handle themselves safely on and around ladders, said Scott Elliott, who runs the local wehangchristmaslights.com franchise.
“The No. 2 reason for falls is that you’re dealing with the roof line,” Elliott said. “One slip and you’re going to get hurt.”
Even people who are comfortable around ladders can get hurt, Maxson said.
“We take safety seriously and still have had a man fall off a ladder, when he wasn’t observing the two-man policy,” Maxson said.
Middle-age men beware
The first sign of the annual increase in trauma falls at Baylor All Saints Medical Center at Fort Worth is the patients’ ages, said Dr. Timothy Jones, emergency department medical director.
“During this season we see more middle-aged men with back strains, contusions, wrist fractures and concussions,” Jones said.
The falling season extends well past Christmas, because what goes up must come down, Jones said.
“That can be even worse because it’s in January when we have more winter weather conditions,” Jones said. “I almost think people need to be more careful when they take them down.”
Or maybe it comes down to who you are.
“If you’re a roofer and you make your living climbing a ladder and walking around up there, that’s one thing,” Jones said. “If you’re an accountant and you’re up there in your wingtip shoes, that’s probably not going to work out so well.”