Up on the Rooftop for Christmas Lights? Experts Urge Caution


His Thanksgiving meal barely digested, a 44-year-old man went outside to string Christmas lights at his Mission Viejo home.

He scaled a ladder and was transferring his weight from the top rungs to the roof when he slipped--with disastrous results. He fell, fracturing his skull, breaking a forearm and rupturing blood vessels in his brain. He spent the rest of the 1995 holidays in a hospital bed recovering from his injuries.

Every year, emergency rooms across the nation treat serious injuries and sometimes report deaths resulting from falls by people putting up outdoor holiday decorations.


“It can have devastating effects,” said Thomas Shaver, former director of emergency medicine at Mission Regional Medical Center. “At a time of year that should be about enjoyment and elation, this turns into a family’s worst nightmare.”

Dr. Wesley Fields, an emergency room physician at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, said such accidents are inevitable. “People get on an unstable ladder and fall,” he said. “I had this man last year who broke several ribs while trying to get his lights up.”

The blunt force of a 6-foot to 10-foot drop from the roof can cause major injuries. Trauma specialists say they have treated fall victims for skull fractures, neck and back injuries, even brain damage that resulted in death.

Some accidents are bound to happen, experts say, when amateurs venture onto housetops.

“It looks very easy, but getting on a roof is tricky,” said Dottie Mamchur, who owns Santa Ana Roofing. “I see people all the time that try to save a few bucks by doing it by themselves.”

State law requires her workers to use safety ropes, she said. Do-it-yourselfers seldom take such precautions.

The biggest hazard is the ladder, she and other roofing experts say. Standard home ladders are 6 feet tall, while most roofs are eight to 10 feet above the ground. Most accidents happen when people are descending and trying to negotiate the two to four feet in between. Also, many home ladders fold out, so even a small nudge can cause them to collapse.


Human error is another factor.

“People are unsure of themselves on roofs,” Mamchur said. “You have to know how to walk on them.” The uninitiated, she said, “freeze up there.”

Though the number of injuries in roof falls is minuscule compared to the total of holiday emergency room cases, they are still a concern to national safety experts.

“It’s a serious problem,” said Robert Bates, chairman of the health studies department at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston and a board member of the National Safety Council.

“Putting up lights is a cultural event, and we don’t look at it with any perspective. We don’t think of the consequences,” he said. “

Holiday decorators, particularly those approaching retirement age, should be realistic, he said. Putting up outside Christmas lights may be a long-standing family custom, but the risks of a fall, especially for an older person, could be devastating.

To avoid courting disaster, experts suggest hiring a handyman to install the roof decorations. Or keep the bright lights closer to the ground by stringing them on shrubbery and handrails instead of on the eaves.


Scaling a ladder to deck the housetop may be an annual test of courage, skill and dexterity, Bates said. “The question is, do you want the test to be a serious injury?”