Falling Furniture Sending Dozens of Massachusetts Kids to Hospital Trauma Units
Tipping televisions causing many injuries
By Maggie Mulvihill and Paul Toomey
New England Center for Investigative Reporting
Three-year-old Meghan Lamb just wanted her sticker book.
Her mother, after tucking her into bed, put the colorful book with stickers of pretty bracelets, earrings and necklaces, 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,” remembers 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, something her mother considers a miracle. She was lucky.
Some 25,400 children have been hurt nationwide in furniture tip-overs between 2009 and 2011, according to a recent report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). An additional 41 people, mostly children, were killed in 2011 by falling furniture; the highest number the CPSC has recorded and a 52 percent increase over two years.
Falling dressers, bookcases and televisions, never thought of as lethal home hazards, have killed at least five New England children since 2007 including one in Massachusetts. A sampling of five Massachusetts hospitals found nearly 100 children, since that same time, have been admitted to the pediatric trauma unit for injuries sustained when furniture or TV’s have tipped over onto them.
Those involved in monitoring these incidents believe the problem is severely underreported because many emergency rooms and clinics do not break out the precise nature of the accidents on medical records or death certificates.
Televisions a lethal home hazard
The family television has emerged in those statistics as a potentially lethal home hazard, the CPSC reports. CPSC estimates an American child dies every two weeks from a falling television.
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, CPSC statistics show.
Those numbers don't identify what types of televisions are falling. But the popularity of massive big-screen TV’s has meant that many older and heavier models have been moved on top of furniture, often in bedrooms, that was not 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 TV’s.
“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 Company, a furniture manufacturer. “Now you are putting 100-pound-televisions on it.”
Ten out of the 20 children admitted to the UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center trauma unit in Worcester, Mass. for tip-over injuries over the past five years were struck by falling televisions, said Surgeon-in-Chief Dr. Michael P. Hirsh. Using televisions as “video babysitters” 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.
TV’s 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. TV’s 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. “To me, it’s like selling a car without a seatbelt.”
Gaps in warning efforts 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, at the time of sale, tip over warnings as well as anchoring hardware for “clothes storage” items that are 30” 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.
An NECIR survey in January of two dozen furniture retailers – from discount chains to chic boutiques - in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, found at least eight examples of non-compliance 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 is not 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 developed anti-tip restraint kits for furniture since 1997.
Heartbreaking loss for parents
Parents who’ve lost or nearly lost children in tip-over accidents think much more should be done to alert the public about the home hazard.
“He must have had angels watching over him,” said Maleah Gustafson, 37, of Holden. Her 2 ½ year old son narrowly escaped being crushed under his new, solid-wood dresser as he tried to reach a stuffed bear on it. Gustafson was steps behind him in the hallway as they headed into his room to change his diaper.
“I heard a huge crash but no screaming, which made me panic,” she said. The dresser had fallen forward into the room landing six inches from her terrified child.
“I have no idea how he got out of the way, honestly. If he had frozen instead of just taking a few steps, it would have landed right on him,” Gustafson said, still stunned the dresser fell given it took four people to move it into her house.
“People want to worry about what they are going to feed their kids, how they are going to provide for them,” said Laura Bourget, whose three-year-old son Tyler was almost pinned under a five-drawer wooden dresser in 2009 as he climbed on it. “They aren’t thinking about bracketing furniture to the walls.”
“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.
In 2004, while she and her husband slept nearby, her three-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.
Packard-Amato, as well as grieving parents in Texas, Kansas and Pennsylvania, whose children were killed in tip-over accidents, have started non-profit organizations in their honor to raise public awareness about tip over risks.
A blog post Packard-Amato wrote in December, which appeared on the website of the non-profit she created, called Meghan's Hope, has had about 1.2 million views, she said. Packard-Amato said she hopes the many parents who viewed the post can help her spread the message about tip-over risks and sign a petition she’s drafted calling for federal action.
Parental responsibility and a continuing push for solutions
Packard-Amato is upset that few of the New England stores NECIR surveyed carried their own anchoring hardware or safety straps. In 2005, shortly after her daughter’s death, friends of Packard-Amato visited area 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.
“And 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 Bennington, VT puts the onus on parents. He said no customer has ever asked for anchoring hardware or safety straps in the 11 years he’s 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.
Manufacturers and retailers say closer supervision of children, common sense and paying attention to the instructions for setting up furniture are critical.
"The whole problem is parents. I wouldn't put a TV on a piece of furniture that could tip over. Parents need to take responsibility,” said Baker, a father of three small children.
“We can’t control how you use your television inside your home and that is where the children die unfortunately,” Drengenberg said. “We can’t test the dressers that someone might be putting the television on.”
Added Gary Bell: “We can't be the furniture police.”
Infographic provided by Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Cover photo courtesy of Attleboro Sun Chronicle photo staff.
Photo of Meghan Beck courtesy of Kimberly Packard-Amato.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (necir.org) is a non-profit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University. NECIR intern Marina Villeneuve contributed to this report.
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