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27th November 2013

Festive Lights: Risk to Service Users?

Fairy LightsSwitching on all over the country

This evening I was faced with a tedious diversion as the town festive light display was being switched on. This involves a few tastefully draped white bulbs from shop to shop, a restrained fir tree by the church and a somewhat underdone festooning of the irritating tree by the crossroads. Of course in other places, far more effort is put in and my colleagues amuse me every year with tales of their neighbourhood aberrations of yard-high Santas, singing snowmen and animated reindeer.

I was rather bemused to also learn today that one of our care workers suggested we should not buy tree lights at all this year due to the risks posed for our service users with epilepsy. Whilst I am never one to deter active risk management and applaud staff for taking a cautious approach, I did have to question the rather extreme nature of this suggestion.

So, what’s the risk?

One of the known triggers for seizure activity is photosensitivity; this is where the flickering or flashing of lights can be sufficient to bring on an epileptic seizure. This light can be a fluorescent tube on its last legs, disco strobe lighting, or even the result of a flickering fan or sunlight through trees. You may hear a warning announcement on TV that a scene contains flash photography; this is another possible trigger. The potential to cause a seizure depends on the frequency of the flash (that is, how quickly the light is flashing), the brightness, contrast with background lighting and the distance between the viewer and the light source.

Christmas tree lights used in public displays are subject to strict health and safety regulations and therefore are highly unlikely to pose a risk. Domestic lights bought to decorate household trees are not subject to this level of regulation; good practice is to restrict the flash rate to a maximum of 2 hertz, but there is no rule for suppliers.

So do we kill Christmas?

There is a very small chance that standing and staring at a rapidly blinking festive tree may bring on a seizure in a highly photosensitive person. However, on balance, this is a very remote possibility. Like all risks, you can mitigate by careful management (so probably dissuade service users from standing for a long time with their nose in the branches…….) Maybe choose non-winking lights or check the flash rate. You will know already the people who are likely to be affected by photosensitive epilepsy from your QCS risk assessments and care planning .

Christmas lights pose other problems though; make sure the wires are all intact and bulbs all fastened in and don’t use them if faulty, since the biggest risk is from house fires cause by dodgy lights.  I refer you to the good advice of Epilepsy Action  and RoSPA  to help you do the right thing and light up with complete confidence this year.


*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

Ginny Tyler

Learning Disabilities Specialist

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