Falling off ladders and roofs is surprisingly common and can result in broken bones, brain injury, paralysis and sometimes even death - as in the case of former Green Bay Packers football star Max McGee, who was blowing leaves off the roof of his Deephaven, Minn., home in October when he fell and died.
More than 2 million people were treated at emergency rooms for ladder-related injuries between 1990 and 2005, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Emergency rooms begin seeing injuries from these falls as people get leaves out of gutters and off the roof, said Dr. Tim Johnson, an emergency doctor at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, Minn.
More cases come in with the hanging of holiday decorations.
"Often they're standing on a ladder and reaching to hang lights," he said. "They don't want to get down and move the ladder."
They lose their balance and fall. When the snow flies, injuries continue as homeowners climb onto their roofs to remove snow.
"Some of the worst injuries we see are those who actually get up on the roof to shovel off snow," Johnson said.
About half the people who fall from a height of 20 feet will be killed, according to an article published last year in Insidesurgery.com.
Experts advise homeowners to stay off the roof. Roofs are steep, slippery and dangerously high. "Keeping feet on the ground is the safest course," Johnson advised. Don't worry about leaves on the roof, he added, and you don't need to go up and clean gutters that are covered.
If you need to get snow off the roof, forget the shovel or snowblower. Use a roof rake or, better yet, hire the job out. Roofing companies have safety harnesses and equipment for their workers, and they use removal methods such as high-pressure steam that are safer for building and roofing materials.
When using a ladder, make sure it is in good working order and that rungs are secure and dry. In addition, the Home Safety Council recommends that you:
Keep ladders away from power lines.
Place them on level ground and open them completely, making sure all locks are engaged.
Use the 4-to-1 rule for extension ladders: for each 4 feet of distance between the ground and the upper point of contact (such as the wall or roof), move the base of the ladder out 1 foot.
Always face the ladder when climbing and wear slip-resistant shoes, such as those with rubber soles.
Keep your body centered on the ladder and gauge your safety by your belt buckle. Don't overreach. If your belt buckle passes beyond the ladder rail, you are overreaching and at risk of falling.
Stand at or below the highest safe-standing level on a ladder. For a stepladder, the safe standing level is the second rung from the top, and for an extension ladder, it's the fourth rung from the top.