Santa having a bad day

The eccentric engineer: ’tis the season to be jolly... and safe

Image credit: Getty Images

Having recently discussed coffins in this column, and what with it being a rather unusual year in so many ways, we should perhaps discuss how to engineer not ending up in one this Christmas.


It wouldn’t really be Christmas without snow, which means that in the UK, it’s almost never Christmas. There has only been snow on the ground at over 40 per cent of UK weather stations on Christmas Day four times in the 51 years leading up to 2015. However, this might be a blessing should you sit down this Christmas with a copy of ‘Surveillance for injuries: cluster of finger amputations from snow-blowers’, which rather alarmingly suggests that on Christmas Eve, 1982, 15 Denver residents had a finger amputated following a snow blower accident.

My advice is never clear blocked snow from your snow-blower with your hands. Now should you be living in Australia, you probably think this doesn’t apply to you, and you’d be right. Yet there is a large Christmas spike in A&E admissions in your country and New Zealand from jet ski and boat propeller accidents, not to mention barbeque injuries – something we don’t have to bother with too much in the UK.

Even when staying indoors, Christmas can be dangerous. Thankfully these days, we rarely illuminate highly flammable Christmas trees with candles although the Swiss, preferring this traditional light, clock up around one serious burns case a year from tree candles. More worrying nowadays is the quality of electric lighting on trees; nearly half of Christmas tree fires in the USA between 2013 and 2017 were due to failed electrics. More bizarrely, one-fifth were started deliberately! It’s not just fires.

Putting up the lights is just as dangerous as switching them on. A Canadian study showed that those injured in this way spend an average of 15 days in hospital, and 5 per cent of those admissions sadly die. It’s also worth checking the wiring before plugging the lights in, as 1 in 40 of us have suffered an electric shock from them. That’s not including the 26 people who died between 1997 and 2010 in the UK when they foolishly tried to water their real trees with the lights still switched on. I hardly need to mention to any parents reading the dangers of smaller, more excitable folk swallowing or inhaling the tiny bulbs. While I’m on the subject, they should avoid holly, mistletoe, Christmas cherry and Christmas rose, all of which are very poisonous to children.

Other decorations are no safer. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 1 in 50 people have fallen out of the loft just retrieving the decorations in the first place and US fire trucks respond to an average of 780 fires a year caused by decorations – excluding those lethal Christmas trees – being left too close to a heat source.

Christmas lunch is also a minefield. One in five of us cuts ourselves just preparing the vegetables, and the Food Standards Agency estimates around 11 million of us defrost our turkeys in an unsafe place, risking campylobacter and salmonella among other potentially deadly infections. Even if we survive the main course, 600,000 of us have burnt ourselves roasting chestnuts on an open fire. I blame Nat King Cole.

Perhaps we should all go out instead? Certainly not! In an Advances in Integrative Medicine article based on an analysis of hospital records for injuries connected to Christmas products and activities between 2007 and 2016, in the US there were 240,626 toboggan-related injuries over the holiday period. Nor do we have to injure ourselves. A rather depressing article ‘Assault-related facial injuries during the season of goodwill’, which set out to see if the ‘Season of Goodwill’ over the 12 days of Christmas resulted in a drop in deliberate facial injuries, found exactly the reverse. Christmas is, in fact, the best time to get punched in the face.

If all this has made you decide to stay in and pour yourself a large drink, you shouldn’t do that either. The authors of ‘Santa baby, hurry [extra carefully] down the chimney tonight – Prevalence of Christmas-related injuries 2007-2016 in the United States’ note that:

 “The exuberance those with high levels of Christmas spirit (and potentially high levels of ingested spirits) possess may lead them to become overconfident in their abilities to perform physical tasks, or practice potentially dangerous activities safely. Overconfidence is a known risk factor for injuries in motor vehicle accidents and workplace accidents, and as such is likely to also be a factor in Christmas-related injuries.”

Interestingly, these overconfidence injuries occur almost exclusively in men.

Surely we’re finally safe to go and see Santa Claus himself? Again, this is risky. In the US, 31 children a year are seen in Emergency Rooms having either fallen off Santa’s lap or tripped having run away from him in fear.

Happy Christmas!


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