Wintertime — especially during the holidays — can be a risky time for health and safety. Virginia Cooperative Extension safety specialist Bobby Grisso has some tips to keep your family and home safe this holiday season.

Avoid Christmas tree fires

Live Christmas trees and electrical lights make the holiday season the most dangerous time of year for house fires. According to the National Fire Protection Association, Christmas trees cause about 530 house fires every year, and holiday lights cause an additional 150 fires.

Choose a recently cut tree and take measures to keep it fresh at home. Cut off the bottom 2 inches of the trunk and keep it in water at all times. A tree can “drink” up to a pint of water per day. “Water uptake is the best single means of keeping your tree safe and fresh,” Grisso said.

Take precautions when decorating

Portable ladders are a convenient way to decorate hard-to-reach areas, but they can also be dangerous. “Planning and care are required to use them safely,” Grisso said. The U.S. Consumer and Product Safety Commission reported that each year, 14,000 people are treated in emergency rooms in the two months before the holidays for injuries related to decorating.

Grisso recommends getting off the ladder and moving it rather than reaching and possibly losing your balance. Use nonskid feet on the ladder to prevent slipping and set up the ladder so the base is placed 1 foot for every 4 feet in height. Extend the ladder 3 feet beyond the roof or other walking surface. Avoid standing on the ladder’s top two rungs.

When using electrical lights, prevent fire or shock by inspecting them carefully for frayed cords or broken sockets. Always unplug lights when changing bulbs. Test lights by plugging them in before placing them on the tree. Also check extension cords or surge protectors before use and be sure not to overload outlets. And always unplug lights before leaving home or going to bed.

Avoid injury when clearing snow

According to the Center for Injury Research and Policy at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, snow removal is hard work that can sometimes cause muscle strain and overexertion. It is important to warm up with light exercise before beginning. Shoveling is more strenuous than many people realize, and for those who are usually sedentary, the exertion may be too much.

Grisso recommends drinking plenty of water while shoveling to stay hydrated.

Wear layers of clothing that can be removed to avoid overheating as you warm up from the exertion. Wear a scarf over your nose and mouth to avoid breathing cold air, which puts extra strain on the heart.

Choosing the right shovel can also help. An S-shaped handle and a nonstick blade make shoveling considerably easier. Bend your knees slightly and push from your thighs to take the strain off the lower back and heart. Take frequent breaks and stop if you feel pain.

Be safe when traveling

Driving with ice and snow on the roads can be very hazardous. To avoid an accident, Grisso recommends planning ahead. “Pay attention to weather forecasts before leaving home. If dangerous weather is imminent, consider delaying or canceling travel plans,” he said.

Look out for ice on signs, trees, and sideview mirrors; ice in these places may indicate ice on the road, which is harder to see. "If you suspect there could be black ice on the pavement, you may want to test for it by gently wiggling the car a little bit or by applying the brakes lightly to see if there's any change in the feel of the road," Grisso said.

Grisso also recommends bringing emergency supplies on long drives in winter weather in case you become stranded. Blankets, high-energy snacks like candy bars, and a flashlight with extra batteries are essential. “Cell phones are helpful but should not substitute for survival kits,” Grisso said.



Written by Allison Hedrick of Chatham, Va., a senior communication major in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
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