Considering how often we find ourselves rushing, taking shortcuts, or checking e-mail instead of keeping an eye on the stove (what’s that smell?), it’s clear that home is not only where the heart is—it’s where accidents happen. In fact, 21 million Americans seek medical attention due to home injuries each year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The holidays can be especially treacherous. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), about 12,000 of us are treated in hospital emergency departments nationwide due to holiday-related decorating incidents.
Fortunately, turning your home into a safety zone around the holidays and the rest of the year is just a matter of making a few precautionary tweaks around the house. Here are small risks you may be taking without realizing it that can lead to big problems, and our tips for avoiding them.
In the Kitchen
Slip-up: Walking away from the stove. Cooking fires are the leading cause of the 386,500 home fires that occur in the U.S. each year. “Frying is especially dangerous because a pan fire from oil that ignites can get big fast and catch things around it on fire,” says Meri-K Appy, the president of Safe Kids USA in Washington, D.C.
Safety fix: Watch your pots. Stay in the kitchen when you’re cooking on the stove. And keep burner temperatures low. If you have to exit the kitchen for some reason (the doorbell rings, your child wants you), turn off the burner or take an oven mitt with you as a reminder to return to the kitchen. And no matter what, don’t put the pan on low, then leave to pick up your kids from school or run to the store. Even if you plan to be right back, you just might get distracted and forget about it.
Slip-up: Rushing with food and liquids fresh from the microwave, especially if your microwave is above your head. When you’re changing levels, going from up to down, hot liquids can more easily slosh onto your face and skin, causing serious burns.
Safety fix: Use gloved oven mitts (not open-face pot holders) with rubber treads so you can get a great grip on whatever you’re carrying. Also, slow down. “Every time you reach into your microwave to take something hot down, think danger, danger, danger,” Appy says. And take a look around to make sure your pets or your kids aren’t underfoot.
Slip-up: Carrying your child with a cup of hot chocolate in tow. Hot liquids and babies or toddlers are never a good mix especially when you consider that younger skin is thinner than an adult’s and more apt to burn.
Safety fix: Put a lid on it. Don’t carry your child when you’re drinking anything hot. Also, use a travel mug, even at home, so that if your child reaches for the mug or tips it over by say, grabbing the tablecloth to pull herself up, there’s an added layer of protection from dangerous spills.
Slip-up: Using a kitchen chair when you need a step stool.
Safety fix: Invest in a step stool with a handle, which is built for climbing and balance. To play it safe, hold onto the handle as you reach to pull something from above your head. Don’t use the stool if you feel tired or woozy.
Slip-up: Not having a working smoke alarm.
Safety fix: A working smoke alarm is essential for home safety around the holidays and any time of year. It cuts your risk of dying in a home fire by half. If you haven’t replaced yours in the last ten years, get a new one. The latest models are wireless and interconnected, so when one alarm sounds, they all go off, says Lorraine Carli, vice president of communications for the National Fire Protection Association. Choose alarms with the UL label. Put them outside each sleeping area, inside each bedroom, and on each floor.
In the Living Room and Bedrooms
Slip-up: Buying holiday toys meant for children older than your child. Although you may think a more “advanced” toy will present a welcome challenge, it’s a choking hazard for kids under 3 if it has small parts.
Safety fix: Buy according to your child’s age. Look for the manufacturer's recommended age range on the toy package—and take it seriously. Age grading can alert you to a possible choking hazard, the presence of small parts, and other dangers. It also relates to a toy’s play value. Keep all small, round or oval objects, including coins, balls, and marbles, away from kids under three.
Slip-up: Neglecting your Christmas tree. Heated rooms can dehydrate a tree quickly. Dried-out Christmas trees are involved in roughly 400 fires each holiday season, causing an average of 17 deaths and $13 million in property damage annually.
Safety fix: Water your tree every day. A well-watered tree can still ignite, but you’ll have more time to get out of your house should a fire start than with a tree that’s not. But even then, it’s not much time. “Thirty years ago, we had an average of 17 minutes to get out of the house if our Christmas tree started to smolder. But because more household items, such as upholstery, rugs, curtains and carpet, are now made from synthetic material, which is highly flammable, we have just two to three minutes to escape before a flashover occurs—when your home becomes engulfed in flames,” says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at Underwriters Laboratories, in Northbrook, Illinois. Keep your tree away from vents, radiators, fireplaces and regular candles, too.
Slip-up: Using regular candles. Lit candles cause roughly 17,000 home fires each year, according to the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Massachusetts. More than half of these fires happened when something combustible came too close to the flame.
Safety fix: Go flameless. Battery-operated flameless candles flicker just like the real thing so you get the ambience affect without the risk. If the power goes out, use flash lights.
Slip-up: When you’re putting up outside holiday lights, reaching to the side is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Each year, more than 164,000 of us are treated in hospital emergency departments due to falls from ladders, according to the CPSC. Another 300 people die from ladder falls each year. “Ladders are such a common tool that we don’t realize the inherent danger,” says Janet Rapp, the executive director of the American Ladder Institute in Chicago.
Safety fix: Don’t go beyond the boundary of the rungs of the ladder. “Your belt buckle should always be in the center of the ladder,” Rapp says. If you feel the urge to stretch in either direction when hanging outdoor lights, get down and move the ladder over. Also, make sure the ladder is in good shape before using it (nothing’s bent, the rungs seem sturdy). Don’t climb on the last two steps from the top and maintain three points of contact at all times—either two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand.
Slip-up: Stringing your home with iffy lights.
Safety fix: Throw away lights with broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections. Use only indoor and outdoor lights with the UL symbol, which signals they’ve been safety tested by nationally-recognized testing laboratory. Outdoor holiday lights are temporary decorations, not lighting fixtures, so don’t use them for longer than 90 days. Don’t use extension cords that feel hot to the touch either. That’s a sign the cord’s insulation has burned away, potentially allowing the inside wires to touch and short circuit.
Sandra Gordon writes about health, nutrition and parenting for websites and magazines. Find her at www.sandrajgordon.com.