Holiday decorations: Keeping facilities safe

Michael Chotiner
Michael Chotiner

The holiday season presents the occasion to decorate — to deck the halls with trees, wreaths, garlands, lights, tinsel and other traditional accessories to evoke a spirit of celebration and warmth. But it's important to know, according to a report published by Earth Sciences International, Christmas trees and other holiday decorations account for almost 2,000 fires and cause more than $41 million in property damage. In particular, dried out Christmas trees can be dangerous.

Mindful of the risks, many healthcare facilities develop guidelines for holiday decorations—both in public spaces and patients' private rooms. Some institutions are more restrictive than others. What follows is a summary of best practices based on regulations and recommendations from a variety of sources, including the National Fire Protection Association, the Consumer Products Safety Commission, and healthcare facilities throughout the country.

Safe Trees, Garlands and Wreaths

  • Artificial trees and decorative foliage are generally safer — less likely to catch fire, that is — than natural, cut trees and branches. If you opt for one or more artificial trees and foliage, make sure they are labeled Fire Resistant. (It is best to make sure that claims of fire resistance are documented by Underwriters' Laboratories (UL) or a similar third-party authority. Some materials sourced from outside the U.S. have been known to carry false labeling.)

  • If you have put up a natural tree, check this week to make sure the needles are still vibrant green and don't come off easily when touched with fingers.

  • Keep natural trees hydrated by placing them in a stand that has a receptacle for water at the base. Keep it filled, and don't leave a natural tree in place indoors for more than four weeks. That means for many facilities to take the tree down by Jan. 6.

  • Keep trees away from heat sources such as fire places and heaters.

  • Certain plants traditionally displayed during the winter holidays have reputations for being toxic; these include poinsettia, mistletoe, holly and hemlock. Toxicity varies between these plants and their different subspecies, from benign to seriously harmful, so research any plant you display to ensure it's not a potential hazard if accidentally ingested.

Safe Lighting and Electrical Cords

  • Use only lighting strands that carry the UL label.

  • Inspect wires, plugs and sockets for corrosion and other damage before hooking them up and displaying them. Repair or replace any deficient parts. Test lights by plugging them in and letting them stay on for 15 minutes to ensure that they're safe and sound.

  • Check the amperage rating of the circuit that will serve a lighting array, and add up the total draw of the combined lighting strings. Generally speaking, it's best not to join more than three light strings (200 miniature bulbs or 50 large bulbs) and plug them into a single receptacle.

  • Do not string holiday lights on metallic trees.

  • Use heavy-duty, three-wire extension cords with three-prong plugs to power holiday lights.  Plug them into power strips with built-in ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). Never extend a circuit by plugging one power strip into another.

  • For outdoor lighting displays, make sure that the lights, extension cords and GFCI-equipped power strips are rated for outdoor use.

  • Use electrical cable staples to fasten wires and extension cords to floors and walls, where necessary. Be careful not to drive fasteners through cables or otherwise damage their insulation.

  • Arrange extension cords used to power holiday lights so that they don't present a trip hazard.

More Holiday Decorating Issues

  • The NFPA Life Safety Code® limits the amount of combustible materials that can be displayed on interior walls and ceiling finishes to 10% of the aggregate wall and ceiling areas of any room or space covered in combustible materials. This includes paintings and photographs. Any decorations beyond the initial 10 percent must be documented as flame retardant, and the documentation must be maintained by the department responsible for mounting the display.

  • Many facilities prohibit hanging decorations from ceilings. In any case, decorations should not be placed closer than 18 inches from sprinkler heads.

  • Decorations should not interfere with the visibility of exit signs.

  • Some facilities prohibit trees other decorative displays that occupy floor space in entryways and hallways, in deference to NFPA rules against blocking means of egress.

While the code regulations and most of the suggestions above must be observed in the common areas of healthcare facilities, it's also good idea to keep an eye on how residents decorate their private rooms and suites. Unsafe lights and extension cords present risks for fire, tripping and electrocution. Facilities with the most restrictive policies — notably, the University of North Carolina Medical Center — ban decorative lights in patient rooms and don't allow wreaths to be hung on patient room doors as they might interfere with opening, closing and egress. Many operators don't allow fastening decorations to finished surfaces with nails or even tape to prevent damage to paint.

None of this is meant to dampen the holiday spirit, but rather to suggest practices to ensure that colleagues and residents alike — everyone in your care — enjoys a happy, healthy and safe holiday season.

Michael Chotiner is a former cabinetmaker and display craftsman who writes frequently on safety, building codes and regulations. Michaels writes on safety topics, including for the holidays, for The Home Depot. To research Home Depot holiday decorations, including styles discussed by Michael, you can visit the company's website.

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