Don't Pull a Griswold: Decorate Safely with Jobsite Tips

A person on a ladder decorating for the holidays over their lit fireplace as a snowman looks in from a window.

Everyone has ended up in a sticky safety situation because of excitement or being in a rush. Perhaps no one has been there more than holiday antihero, Clark W. Griswold, whose family’s festive activities featured in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation ran the gamut from setting a Christmas tree on fire to a variety of ladder mishaps, resulting in Clark sliding down his gabled roof and hanging from the gutter, sending an icicle through his neighbor’s window and Clark making an unceremonious landing in a snow-covered bush.

Clark (and his whole family) would have benefited from safety tips from a company that holds safety as a value, informing the way it operates every single day. In other words, the approach DPR Construction’s Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) professionals put to work on complex jobsites every day could have helped Clark.

Clark was lucky. In fact, the Consumer Products Safety Commission says that there are nearly 18,000 emergency room visits from holiday decorating every year! Planning like a construction pro, though, means the typical household tree decorator or light stringer can avoid trips to the ER.

“We work at height every day,” said John Hogan, one of DPR’s EHS leaders. “We know how to handle hazardous energy and fire hazards. It’s the table stakes of doing construction work and the best practices we follow on the jobsite can certainly keep people healthy and safe at home.”


A person decorating on a ladder.

“We always say ‘ladders last,” said DPR’s T.J. Lyons, another one of the firm’s safety leaders. “The best first step is seeing if you can use something more stable than a ladder to work from height. For us, that means things like scissor lifts. In many households, though, a ladder is the choice and that means being extremely vigilant.

The CPSC says the majority of holiday ER visits come from falls and those tend to involve ladders. If you must use a ladder, Lyons recommends these steps for household ladder use:

  • Inspect your ladder and ensure it is securely placed on the ground before climbing it
  • When on the ladder, keep your body inside the ladder frame. If you find yourself stretching off to reach, you need to climb down and move the ladder.
  • Moving a ladder? Don’t “hop” the ladder Griswold-style. Climb down, maintaining three points of connection with the ladder and only move the ladder once on the ground.
  • Never stand on the top two ladder rungs.
  • Know where electricity comes into your house from the pole and keep your ladder far from it.


A lit fireplace with decorations.

From the kitchen to the living room, the holidays bring fire hazards. The CPSC says that, from 2014 to 2016, there were about 100 Christmas tree fires and about 1,100 candle fires that resulted in 10 deaths, 150 injuries, and nearly $50 million in property damage each of those years. There are also thousands of cooking fires every year related to holiday cooking.

“On the jobsite, we believe the best way to stop a fire is not having one,” Hogan says. “Taking the steps to make sure one never starts is as important as making sure you have a fire extinguisher ready to go.”

Among other steps Hogan recommends are:

  • Water live Christmas trees daily and make sure that electrical cords and lights are in good condition.
  • More than half of home decorations fires are started by candles, so:
    • If using candles for decorating, in a menorah or kinara, making sure they are far from flammable items and never leave them unattended.
    • When possible, try using battery-operated candles instead.
  • Keep combustible materials at least three feet from heat sources (e.g. fireplaces, space heaters.)
  • Never use propane or gas heaters that are made for outdoor use inside the house.


Tree lights and linked electrical cords.

Most homeowners do not work around the types of electrical hazards construction workers do. But, even the smaller sources of household electricity are enough to be fatal or to cause a fire.

“You don’t get time to negotiate with hazardous energy,” Hogan said. “We also have a lot of electrical cord protocols that serve as best practices in any household.”

Hogan recommended starting with the basics:

  • Make sure electrical decorations are labeled with approval from Underwriters Laboratory (UL), which should be clearly displayed on the tag and indicates the product has been inspected for potential safety hazards
    • Red UL marks mean the lights are safe for indoor/outdoor use
    • Green UL marks mean the lights are only safe indoors
  • Use heavy duty extension cords that are designed for outdoor use for exterior decorations.
  • Just like on a jobsite, inspect cords for frayed wires or cracks and replace any damaged cords.
  • Do not “daisy chain” extension cords and do not overload circuits.
  • Keep lights away from flammable surfaces such as drapes, furniture or carpeting
  • Turn the lights off when not at home or overnight
  • Eliminate slip and trip hazards by placing cords and decorations in low-traffic areas. Also, do not run cords under doors where they may get crushed and never over the sharp edges of a gutter.