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Hollywood’s Holiday Hazards: Classic Films Offer Valuable Safety Tips

Monday, November 27, 2006

Snuggling up with hot chocolate and the holiday movie you must watch dutifully every year may have some health benefits: parading as comedy, many of the films offer warnings about real holiday hazards.

You can be sure to keep the humor on screen by heeding the unfortunate examples of your favorite characters; just follow the tips below, courtesy of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids at Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong.

Merry Mishaps: Falls and Flames

A holiday favorite with accidents to avoid: The Santa Clause (1994). Character Scott Calvin startles an intruder atop his roof Christmas Eve: the real Santa Claus. The big guy slips, falls off the roof and disappears, forcing crotchety, cynical Calvin to rally his holiday cheer, assume Santa’s job and make sure the tradition of Christmas continues seamlessly.

“This is a season for ladders, rooftops, and unfortunately, as the poem goes, clatters. Falls and slips happen. Kids don’t belong on roofs, and shouldn’t climb up ladders until they’re 16 years old. Even adults should be careful, especially when snow and ice are involved,” said Anne Brayer, co-director of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids (IFCK) Rochester site at Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong. 

Other roof and ladder tips:

  • Don’t reach, don’t push the limits.  Extend ladder at least three feet beyond the edge of the roof top, keep your feet centered (never on the top two rungs), and don’t overreach – it’s better to move the ladder than take a risk.
  • Four-to-one rule. Place ladder one foot out for ever four feet of height (the distance between the ground and where the ladder comes in contact with the building).
  • Don smart shoes. If you have to use a ladder or climb on the roof, choose good weather: opt for a dry, non-windy day. Wear shoes with good traction (e.g., rubber soles).

As if Calvin doesn’t suffer enough, he also roasts (well, chars) the holiday turkey. Luckily, he has a fire extinguisher (and a Denny’s restaurant) nearby.

“It’s the time of year when people are trying to multitask; they’re baking up a storm, burning candles and using their fireplaces. Sometimes, one gets lost in the mix, something gets overcooked, overlooked. It’s important to know how to deal with a fire,” Brayer said.

Other fire-proofing and fire-fighting tips:

  • Don’t light and leave. If you light a candle, stick around to supervise it. Keep votives and tapers in stable holders, and keep them out of a child’s (or the tree branches’) reach.
  • Guard your tree. If you prefer a real tree, you’ll have to keep it fresh. Pick one with a trunk that’s sticky to the touch (due to resin) and needles that bend but don’t break. Keep it well-watered.  If you opt for artificial, be sure to buy one that’s flame-resistant.
  • Tend a safe fire. Have your fireplace and chimney inspected each season before using it. If you experiment with fire salts (which create colorful flames), keep them away from kids (the heavy metals in their composition will cause irritation and vomiting if consumed). Also, stick to wood for fuel and kindling – wrapping papers burn hot and rapidly. Be sure to deter children from touching fireplace glass and doors by use a sturdy screen and exercising plenty of supervision.
  • Know the drill. Have a family escape plan and practice it. Make sure extinguishers are placed conveniently (for small emergencies, only) and that smoke detectors have fresh batteries.

Merry Mishaps: Thin Ice and Playing with Power

Retreating to two traditional, time-tested holiday tales about the value of family: Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “Little Women” (1994 film adaptation). Both show what maladies await kids who sled and skate atop thin ice.  It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey and Little Women’s Jo March both must rush to save younger siblings that crack through frozen streams and ponds, almost drowning in the frigid water.

“Kids should only skate if supervised by an adult, who should first check to make sure the ice is clear of debris and at least four inches thick,” said Lynn Cimpello, M.D. and IFCK co-director with Brayer. “When in doubt, avoid it; find an indoor rink.”

Other skating (and sledding) tips:

  • It’s not a fashion show. Bundle up – the multiple layers both cushion falls and prevent hypothermia.
  • Guard kids’ courses against crashes. Consider having children 12 and younger wear a fitted helmet when sledding. Help them choose a sled they can steer (not a tube or disk) and a well-lit, tree-free path. And always, feet first, not head first.

And of course, there’s always the quirky classic: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989). Clark Griswold strings his house with 25,000 bulbs, blinding the neighbors, overloading his outlets and ultimately electrocuting his uncle’s cat (he chews on a strand of lights).

“Griswold blatantly breaks the three strands per extension cord rule,” Cimpello said. “It’s surprising that the cat was the only one seriously injured.”

Other light-stringing and power safety tips:

  • Replace lights, if necessary. Toss old strands with broken, cracked or open sockets and frayed wires. 
  • Avoid shocks and charges. Never string electric lights on metallic trees; don’t overload plugs, and be sure to use surge protectors.
  • Indoors don’t belong outdoors. Be sure house-trimming lights are certified for outdoor use (they’re built to withstand the weather). Hang them from insulated plastic hooks, not nails (which can conduct heat and electricity).

Merry Mishaps: Tree Trimmings and Tempting Toys

Another telling moment occurs in Home Alone(1990), where one of character Kevin McCallister’s booby traps to fend off “Wet Bandits” Marv and Harry sends a sharp message to parents – literally. Marv screams, slicing his foot on a pile of sharp glass ornaments Kevin has strategically spread beneath an open window.

“Kevin’s actions were intentional, but the message holds true for accidents, too: ornaments can be both pretty and pretty dangerous,” Brayer said. “Kids are magnetically drawn to a decorated tree. Choosing plastic bulbs may be safer, especially with youngsters and pets that could knock them off, causing them to explode into hundreds of sharp pieces.”

Other ornament safety tips:

  • Shatterproof your tree. Opt for kid-friendly ornaments; keep breakable ornaments high above kids’ (and pets’) reach. 
  • Skip the sugar plums. If possible, pick ornaments without metal hooks of detachable parts, and don’t choose ones that resemble food or candy.  In fact, avoid placing edible trimmings, like candy canes and popcorn, on the tree if youngsters are in the house – these only add to the confusion.

And even that oh-so-pined-for toy at the top of a kid’s list can be dangerous.  Parents are reminded of “A Christmas Story” (1983), in which character Ralphie, after much obsession, receives “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and 'this thing', which tells time.” He also winds up fulfilling the adult warnings, nearly shooting his eye out.

“The message to parents is clear: some toys can become dangerous, especially if misused or not age-appropriate,” Brayer said. “Wise parents will listen to their instincts.”

Other toy safety tips:

  • Read, read, read.  Scour the packaging and the instructions for warnings and safety recommendations before purchasing and opening toys. Opt for toys that are age- and skill-level appropriate for the child (and, if applicable, for the child’s siblings). Especially beware of choking hazards, like small parts, strangulation hazards, like pull-toy strings, and the obvious hazards related to misuse of pellet and BB guns.
  • Batteries are better. Choose toys that use batteries over those that require being plugged into outlets, especially for younger children – just keep an eye to make sure the compartment that holds them is secure (look for screws, not snap-in covers), so they don’t pop them in their mouths.

Finally – no chronicle of holiday disasters would be complete without Ralphie’s friend Flick’s pole-licking scene. A ‘triple dog dare’ to see if tongues really stick to cold metal snowballs into a disaster worthy of a firemen’s rescue and some serious screaming.

“The message, to curious kids, is that yes, that can really happen, and it can really hurt,” Cimpello said.  “And with so many yummy treats to enjoy during the holidays, it’d be a shame to have sore taste buds.”

The Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Rochester is a child injury prevention program centered at the Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong, and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program’s main goal is to reduce the incidence and severity of childhood injury in the greater Rochester metropolitan area – both during the holiday season and the rest of the year.

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