Words: Natasha May, The Guardian
Toppling furniture has killed 27 Australians since 2000. Of these fatalities, 20 were children aged under seven.
Every Australian wants their home to be a safe and enjoyable place says Dr Warwick Teague. Yet every month, as Director of the Trauma Service at The Royal Children’s hospital in Melbourne, he sees a child admitted as a result of toppling furniture in the home.
All age groups are at risk of injury from the weight of furniture and televisions striking them, but it’s particularly acute for children under five years of age. Teague explains that being small in stature, they can be overwhelmed by the furniture, which can injure them from head to toe.
Australian Consumer Law does not provide any mandatory safety or information standards to specifically prevent the risk of injury from furniture and televisions tipping over. However, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is currently scoping potential regulatory options. The consumer watchdog made toppling furniture and televisions one its product safety priorities for 2021 and this past week has released an issues paper on the matter.
The paper has identified three key safety factors that can influence the likelihood of furniture toppling over: the product design, the anchoring of furniture and consumer behaviour. Delia Rickard, the deputy chair of the ACCC, says these issues need to be considered together. “There’s no one silver bullet to fix this, we need to look at design, we need to make it easier to anchor furniture and raise awareness about the type of conduct that can lead to accidents.”
While formalised regulations are yet to be enacted, Guardian Australia has talked to the experts about safety measures that can be made right now.
Think about product design
The ACCC issues report says furniture is more stable when designed to be shorter, wider, deeper and bottom-heavy: the furniture you get handed down from your grandmother might be this sturdy kind. “Modern lightweight flatpack furniture, like Ikea bookshelves and cabinets, are a lot lighter, and don’t necessarily have a heavy base, so unless you tether it, there’s a chance it can fall,” Rickard says.
The same goes for televisions. As TVs are increasingly designed to be thinner and larger, the ACCC report says the stability provided by the base becomes more important if it’s not mounted to a wall.
In the past two years, at least nine products have been recalled for their toppling risk. The full list is available on the Product Safety website.
Anchor when possible
Furniture and television anchoring kits attach an item, either bolting or strapping it to the wall or any other secure surface. The ACCC issues report says furniture should ideally be designed to be stable while freestanding, but anchoring can help prevent the furniture falling if it does start to tip over.
Try look for furniture that comes with anchoring kits or straps to save yourself having to make a separate trip to the hardware store. Christine Erskine, executive officer at Kidsafe NSW says many people aren’t aware televisions and furniture come with a strap and throw it out, but advises “if there is a strap use it”.
Rickard suggests “the stud, the bit of wood behind the wall, is the safest place to anchor as it’s the sturdiest”. She says you find it by “knocking along the wood with your knuckles until you find a slightly different, less hollow sound”.
If you’re struggling with the anchoring equipment, Rickard suggests you can turn to YouTube for instructional videos or else outsource the task to a professional handyman. You can also find further practical guidance online, for instance Ikea has developed a guide to anchoring their furniture.
Anchoring for renters
A survey from consumer advocacy group Choice found that many renters don’t have furniture secured in their homes because their landlord hasn’t allowed it, and Erin Turner, director of campaigns at Choice, says many tenants are afraid to request it.
But laws are changing to help renters anchor furniture. The death of a Perth toddler who was crushed by a chest of drawers after the family’s landlord had refused to let them anchor the item resulted in Western Australia passing new laws in 2019. Changes to tenancy laws in New South Wales and Victoria have similarly allowed renters to secure furniture for safety reasons.
Erskine highlights that each state and territory’s fair trading departments will have their own regulations regarding tenants’ rights, which include safety in the home. She says you have to ask permission to attach or screw something into the wall, but that landlords are required to make sure you have a safe place to live.
Teague says anchoring furniture can be done in a way that won’t ruin the wall, but at the end of the day “no wall is more important than the child”.
Think about furniture placement
The ACCC issues report also highlights that your own choices when it comes to placement and use can help prevent accidents.
- Placing furniture on thick or uneven carpet will increase the risk of tipping.
- Don’t put heavy items like televisions on top of furniture not intended to support the weight – it makes both units more unstable.
- Keep your heaviest items at the bottom of drawers and shelves. “Your Encyclopaedia Britannica is definitely going on the bottom shelf,” Teague says.
- Use furniture in the way it’s intended.
- Avoid leaning on furniture for support or standing on chairs and tables
Don’t tempt climbers
Many injuries are caused by children climbing on furniture. The ACCC issues report says that “the weight of a child standing on an open drawer or shelf moves the centre of mass forward, increasing the risk of toppling”.
Erskine says “the more interesting the shelves are, the more exciting it is for the child to climb”. Avoid placing items like toys and lollies on high open shelves that may tempt a child to climb.
Teague says the most common age group he sees with injuries from toppling furniture are children under three. “This speaks to the very curious, but now mobile, young child who is exploring the world without the ability to make sense of associated risks.”
“Carers need to allow the opportunity for exploration,” Teague says. “I as an adult can act positively and decisively when I purchase an item to assess its toppling risk, or look at ways it can be secured or consider options less prone to toppling.”