Safety groups warn parents about furniture tip-over dangers

Chicago TribuneApril 2, 2013 

LIFE FAM-FALLING-FURNITURE TB

Lisa Siefert of Barrington Hills, Il., stood next to a photo of her son, Shane, who died in 2011 after his dresser fell on top of him.

STACEY WESCOTT — MCT

CHICAGO — Two years after her son Shane was crushed by a falling dresser in the family's home just outside Chicago, Lisa Siefert still has his car seat in place as she drives to her advocacy work on the dangers of tip-overs.

She can't bring herself to go into the bedroom where the 2-year-old died, but she gathers the will to talk about what happened, because she didn't know furniture should be anchored and she wants to warn others to prevent another tragedy.

"When you walk into (a children's store), you expect the products to be safe, but that's not true," Siefert said.

The dresser that fell on Shane two years ago was recalled in February by the Consumer Product Safety Commission after an investigation found it to be hazardous. Several other actions focusing on tip-overs are pending or have been launched, because the number of deaths and injuries to children from falling televisions and furniture keeps rising.

From 2000 to 2011, 349 people were killed in tip-overs, 84 percent of them younger than 9. In 2011, there were 41 deaths, the highest one-year total ever, according to the safety commission, which says that, on average, one child dies in a furniture tip-over every two weeks.

In addition, an estimated 43,000 people are injured each year in tip-overs, almost 60 percent of them younger than 18, according to the safety commission.

The deaths and injuries are preventable, the safety commission says, but alerting new parents, caregivers and grandparents about safety straps and brackets requires coordination and cooperation from furniture and TV manufacturers and retailers, and from physicians, hospitals and consumer groups.

"From stability to interaction with installers to the role parents can take, it's an all-in approach to bring down an ever-increasing number of deaths," said Scott Wolfson, a safety commission spokesman.

SafeKids Worldwide, a network of organizations working to prevent injuries to children, was spurred to act after monitoring reports from emergency rooms and the Consumer Product Safety Commission about tip-overs, said Kate Carr, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based group.

As Siefert speaks to groups, she asks whether people secure their furniture, and she often gets blank stares, she said. She also hears that people don't want to damage their walls or floors by installing restraints.

"People say they don't need straps because they watch their kids. But sometimes accidents happen in front of parents. I tell them I took all the safety measures I knew about, but this is my son," she said, holding up a brochure with a photo of Shane in monster truck earmuffs, a month before his death.

The brochure offers safety tips and is part of the work of the nonprofit Shane's Foundation, which Siefert started to warn parents about tip-overs.

"I can rationalize that we never knowingly put him in harm's way, but still, as parents, we're responsible for his safety," she said.

Shane's dresser had small teddy bears behind clear plastic windows in compartments above the drawers but only a changing pad on top. Shane had never shown any inclination to climb it, Siefert said. Yet, on March 14, 2011, that's what he must have done when he was in his room for his afternoon nap. When Siefert went to wake him, she found him under the dresser.

The Chicago-based organization Kids in Danger, which focuses on children's product safety, might push to make mandatory what is now a voluntary standard on tip-overs for furniture manufacturers, executive director Nancy Cowles said.

"It should be assumed that furniture is safe" if sold for children's rooms, Cowles said. "Some companies do (comply with the standard), some don't."

By law, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has only limited ability to impose restrictions, Wolfson said. If a voluntary standard exists to curb a potential hazard and if it's being complied with, the commission cannot force implementation, he said.

The voluntary standard for "clothing storage" containers, such as dressers, went into effect in 2009, based on testing by ASTM International, which develops technical standards for products, materials and services.

"We look at the stability of chests, if they're fully loaded and drawers are open," said Len Morrissey, a director of standards development. "They must withstand the pull force of 50 pounds," the approximate weight of a 5-year-old.

To comply with the standard, safety straps must be attached to chests and the furniture must carry tip-over warning labels, Morrissey said. Many retailers won't sell chests unless they meet the standard, and manufacturers will advertise that they meet ASTM criteria, he said.

The standard will be updated in April, with the major change clarifying how to test the stability of drawers, he said. This had been unclear to some foreign manufacturers and needed to be consistently applied for tests to be valid.

How many manufacturers are complying with the standard is difficult to quantify because there's no formal means of keeping track.

Indiana-based B. Walter & Co. has produced tip-over restraints for 10 years and sells them to several large furniture manufacturers, said Art Jasen, president and CEO. But a lot of furniture is made by small companies and "they're not that aware of what needs to be done to provide the safety factor for their furniture," he said.

The restraints cost manufacturers 25 cents, Jasen said, and some have complained about the price.

Any push to make the standard mandatory would face tough odds at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, where relatively few restrictions have been imposed on the many thousands of products it oversees.

That leaves SafeKids, Siefert and others to focus on retailers. They would like to create the kind of pressure that leads stores to sell only dressers that meet the standard and to make straps or other anchors readily available.

Ikea, which sells ready-to-assemble children's furniture, prints a tip-over warning on instructions. It says, "Children rarely do what you expect them to do. They climb, clamber and play with things in ways that are often difficult to foresee." Buyers are urged to use brackets to secure furniture to the wall.

The store also has a 12-point safety checklist posted at the entrance to the children's area. The first point involves tip-overs and then covers everything from cabinet door latches to outlet covers.

Creating sufficient awareness about tip-overs to change consumer behavior can be a long process, said Carr of SafeKids, citing initial reluctance about seat belts and child car seats.

"This is completely a 100 percent preventable problem," she said. "If making the standard mandatory is the only way to accomplish it, we'll advocate for that, but we're hoping companies will put notices on furniture and then parents will take them seriously and take action in their homes."

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