If your kid sees the couch as a trampoline, the highchair as a jungle gym and the table as a chin-up bar, be aware that, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), thousands of children suffer injuries every year from toppling furniture.
As Dr. Gary Smith, president of the nonprofit Child Injury Prevention Alliance, told the consumer news site Fair Warning, “Furniture was designed for the convenience of adults, child injury was never considered. …[Parents] simply don’t know that they’ve got this danger lurking.”
In 2010, the most recent year for which federal estimates are available, unstable furniture was responsible for 23,600 emergency room visits, the highest number since 2006. Most of those patients were younger than 10 years old.
Approximately 20,000 people that year were hurt by TVs, which often sit on furniture not designed to support them.
The injuries include serious bruising, damage to internal organ damage and fractures. From 2000 through 2010, the CPSC received reports of nearly 300 deaths, mostly involving children who were crushed.
Those stories fuel efforts to inform parents and revise the manufacturing standards.
Jenny Horn’s 2-year-old son, Charlie, choked to death underneath a 30-inch dresser in his bedroom while his caretaker thought he was sleeping. She heard nothing even when the dresser toppled onto him after he apparently climbed on it. “They call it a silent death,” Horn told Fair Warning. Children “are a cushion for the fall of the dresser so you don’t necessarily hear a sound.”
A similar accident befell Meghan Packard, 3. “By the time we found her, it was too late,” Kimberly Packard said, explaining that her husband and Meghan’s twin brother, Ryan, discovered her underneath a dresser.
Horn and Packard had secured taller pieces of furniture in their homes to the walls; they never suspected that smaller pieces of furniture also posed a threat.
The furniture industry has been guided since 2000 by voluntary stability standards for dressers and other storage units. The current standard, in effect since in 2009, requires furniture to remain steady when all the drawers are open and when a 50-pound weight is placed in the front of a drawer to simulate a 5-year-old that sees it as monkey bars.
Chests and dressers are supposed to have tip restraints for consumers to affix to a wall.
A panel composed of CPSC, industry officials and consumer advocates are considering whether, and how, to toughen the standard. But is a tougher voluntary standard is effective when some companies ignore it?
One product compliance manager at Stanley Furniture Co. told Fair Warning, “Where you get into trouble is with the furniture that is less expensive in some of the big box stores.” A person who worked in testing and distribution for Ethan Allen agreed that for some manufacturers, if the rules aren’t mandatory, “they won’t do it.”
Even what the panel’s considering falls short. At present, it would continue to exempt items without drawers, such as tables and bookcases. One trade group representative said that those furnishings are less likely to be involved in fatal accidents.
An accident doesn’t have to be fatal to be tragic and unnecessary, does it?
A bill introduced in Congress in 2005 to set mandatory safety standards on furniture and TVs was supported by the Consumer Federation of America, but failed.
One rationale given for not seeking a mandatory standard is that a voluntary standard can be developed and revised more quickly. A CPSC spokesman said that when immediate action is necessary to remove faulty furniture from the market, his agency works with industry to carry out product recalls.
According to the CPSC, there have been nine furniture industry recalls since 1992, covering nearly 1.7 million pieces of potentially wobbly furniture.
The popularity of big, flat-screen TVs has led to an increase in TV set-related accidents partly because after buying one, some people put their older, bulkier models on furniture unable to support them.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wants the CPSC to boost efforts to educate the public about the hazards unsecured TV sets can pose to children. The commission is studying what kinds of TVs tend to be involved in the incidents, but, really, it’s not rocket science—figure it out and tell people
As always, even when safety initiatives are developed some people remain ignorant of or uninterested in them. A telephone survey earlier this year of 1,000 U.S. households by the American Home Furnishings Alliance found that only 36 in 100 with children younger than 6 anchored their TV or furniture to the wall to prevent tip-over accidents.
To learn how to secure furniture and protect children, visit the website of Charlie’s House, a nonprofit named for Jenny Horn’s son, that’s dedicated to child safety.