Thousands of children injured by furniture that tips over
Three-year-old Meghan Lamb just wanted her sticker book.
Her mother, after tucking her into bed, put the colorful book on top of Meghan’s new bedroom dresser. The toddler, still wanting to play, slipped out of bed, opened the drawers of the 100-pound wooden dresser and started to climb. ... Subscribe or log in to read more
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Three-year-old Meghan Lamb just wanted her sticker book.
Her mother, after tucking her into bed, put the colorful book on top of Meghan’s new bedroom dresser. The toddler, still wanting to play, slipped out of bed, opened the drawers of the 100-pound wooden dresser and started to climb.
“Ten minutes later, I heard the biggest crashing sound I ever heard in my life,” said Meghan’s mother, Melissa Lamb, 37, of Attleboro, Mass. “She was pinned from the neck down. I thought for sure she was paralyzed or had some internal damage. It had fallen directly on her.”
Meghan, now 7, escaped unharmed, but a distressing number of children don’t, according to state public health data obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
Some 25,400 children have been hurt nationwide in furniture tip-overs from 2009-11, according to a recent report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. An additional 41 people, mostly children, were killed in 2011 by falling furniture; the highest number the commission has recorded and a 52 percent increase over two years.
In New Hampshire, there has been a “statistically significant increase” in the number of child emergency room visits for furniture-related injuries, the center found. The visits, which occurred from 2005-09 – the most recent years for which statistics are available – are for furniture that struck children, according to the state analyst who compiled the data. There were no deaths and no inpatient admissions, the data shows.
In Nashua, St. Joseph Hospital’s emergency room has seen “one or two” children younger than 10 hurt by falling furniture each of the last few years, according to the hospital’s trauma coordinator, Susan Barnard. The injuries usually are caused by oversized TVs and chests of drawers.
Falling dressers, bookcases and televisions – not usually thought of as lethal home hazards – have killed at least five New England children since 2007, including one in Massachusetts.
A sampling of hospitals in Massachusetts, some of which have treated children from other New England states, found at least 90 children, during that same time, have been treated for injuries sustained when furniture or TVs have tipped over onto them.
Those involved in monitoring these incidents believe the problem is severely underreported because many emergency rooms and clinics don’t break out the precise nature of the accidents on medical records or death certificates.
That includes Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in Nashua, which doesn’t have separate figures for injuries caused by falling furniture.
Televisions a lethal
The family television has emerged in those statistics as a potentially lethal home hazard, the commission reports. The commission estimates an American child dies every two weeks from a falling television.
At Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, 12 children were admitted to the trauma unit for furniture-related tip-overs from 2007-11, the most recent years for which statistics are available, hospital data shows. Four children were injured by falling televisions, said Debra A. Samaha, the hospital’s injury prevention program director.
Televisions or televisions placed on top of furniture accounted for 62 percent of the tip-over fatalities since 2000, with falling televisions comprising most of the deaths in 2011, commission statistics show.
Those numbers don’t identify what types of televisions are falling. But the popularity of massive big-screen TVs has meant that many older and heavier models have been moved on top of furniture, often in bedrooms, that wasn’t designed to support them, according to regulators, doctors and industry experts who are studying the issue.
Industry studies show that at least 65 percent of U.S. households own three TVs.
“When I was growing up, the top of my dresser was where I put my model airplane, my coin bank and a picture or two,” said Gary M. Bell, product safety liability manager for the Sauder Woodworking Co., a furniture manufacturer. “Now you are putting 100-pound televisions on it.”
Ten out of the 20 children admitted to the University of Massachusetts Memorial Children’s Medical Center trauma unit in Worcester for tip-over injuries over the last five years were struck by falling televisions, surgeon-in-chief Dr. Michael P. Hirsh said. Using televisions as “video baby sitters” for small children has resulted in some horrific incidents, he said.
“We’ve had some kids with significant head injuries, significant crush injuries to the limbs from getting caught under these components,” Hirsh said.
UMass is part of a coalition of 43 trauma centers nationwide seeking ways to stop the incidents.
“They get planted in front of the TV and they want their channel, they want their program on,” Hirsh said. “The kids have figured out that by pulling out a drawer that they can kind of use it as a kind of a stepladder to get to the top of that bureau. That’s one of the ways that these things will kind of flip.”
New televisions, most made overseas, must pass stability tests in order to be certified for safety in the U.S., said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for the product safety company Underwriter’s Laboratories, or UL.
TVs also must pass stability tests to ensure they don’t tip when placed on furniture designed to hold them, such as TV stands, industry experts said. TVs must be sold with detailed instruction manuals that urge buyers to place them only on certain types of furniture. But those manuals are often dense, resulting in consumers ignoring them or throwing them away, experts said.
There is no requirement yet that televisions come with a vivid, orange tip-over warning label and anchoring hardware. The furniture industry has adopted a voluntary standard that calls for certain items to be sold with both.
TV tip-over warnings are imperative, said Dr. Gary Smith, president of the Center for Injury Research and Policy.
“It is something that is desperately needed,” said Smith, a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “To me, it’s like selling a car without a seat belt.”
Gaps in warning
by furniture makers
The continuing tragedies have raised questions about the degree to which the furniture industry is following its own voluntary standard.
Adopted in 2009, it urges manufacturers to provide tip-over warnings at the time of sale, as well as anchoring hardware for “clothes storage” items that are 30 inches or higher and have drawers.
Under the standard, the furniture has to pass tests that showed it remained steady both when all drawers are open and when a 50-pound weight is placed in one of them, the approximate weight of a young child scaling the furniture.
There is no enforcement mechanism or monitoring of compliance, but manufacturers take it seriously, said Bill Perdue, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Home Furnishings Alliance, which helped develop the standard.
A New England Center for Investigative Reporting survey in January of two dozen furniture retailers –
from discount chains to chic boutiques – in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts found at least eight examples of noncompliance by furniture makers.
Manufacturers following the standard are supposed to place a warning label in a “conspicuous location” in the top drawer of the covered furniture. Most consumers would “not necessarily” be aware of the tip-over hazard when entering a store, but would see the warnings when they opened the furniture drawers, Perdue said.
“I didn’t realize it was a problem,” said David L. Yoder, owner of Wonder Wood Amish Furniture in Ohio, which sells hundreds of pieces of furniture annually, including many in New England. Yoder said he was unaware of the standard.
One manufacturer of the anti-tip kits isn’t surprised by that.
“I know a lot of them out there are not doing anything,” said Art Jasen, president and chief executive officer of Walter of Wabash, an Indiana-based company that has developed anti-tip restraint kits for furniture since 1997.
“I didn’t know this was a problem. I knew about cabinet locks and outlet plugs, but nothing about furniture,” said Kimberly Packard-Amato, of Sterling, Mass.
In 2004, while she and her husband slept nearby, her 3-year-old daughter, Meghan Beck, silently smothered beneath a bedroom dresser that crashed over on her.
“She couldn’t cry. She
couldn’t get up. She couldn’t breathe,” Packard-Amato said.
In 2005, shortly after her daughter’s death, friends of Packard-Amato visited local furniture stores armed with articles about the tragedy. Store owners, Packard-Amato said, told her friends they didn’t sell any such hardware or straps.
“It’s eight years later and they still haven’t got anything like that,” Packard-Amato said.
But Paul Baker, the general manager at Bennington Furniture in Vermont, puts the onus on parents. He said no customer has ever asked for anchoring hardware or safety straps in the 11 years he has worked at the store. A lack of parental awareness about tip-over risks is a key part of the problem, said Baker and Bennington deliveryman Alex Jean.
Jean said when he makes a delivery, he shows customers the anchoring hardware and offers to help them secure the furniture to a wall. No one has ever taken him up on the offer, he said.
“I’ve never anchored a piece of furniture in the three years I’ve worked here,” Jean said.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (necir-bu.org) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University. NECIR intern Marina Villeneuve contributed to this report.