Netflix documentary – how cheap furniture is killing children – lessons for all

The Maze, Safety Pin, Design icons

4 minute read

In a first for product safety, a new documentary exposes the story of how everyday household products can present unacceptable hazards.

Broken documentary furniture
Still from Broken, Episode 3

Episode 3 of the new US Netflix ‘docuseries’, Broken, titled Deadly Dressers, examines furniture tip-overs that have killed and injured young children. It chronicles how changes to the way furniture is made has led to reduced stability. And it posits that mass produced, lightweight items can be deadly when children climb up to reach an item on top.

The episode features a cohort of parents who’ve lost their children to tip-over incidents. Members of the group, known as Parents Against Tip-Overs, recount their personal tragedies, and the struggle to bring about change by industry and government.

The documentary episode contains lessons that apply to all consumer products.

Product safety fundamentals

Included in the episode are fundamental product safety issues, including:

Product design – Analysing design flaws, and eliminating hazards at the product design stage.

Safety is possible at all price points – Compliant, stable furniture is not restricted to expensive stores or brands.

Products failing to meet voluntary standards – Even if a standard isn’t mandatory, it’s possible for retailers and others to push for compliance when placing orders.

Whether standards are fit for purpose – Relevant published standards are now being re-examined, in light of actual experience and injury data.

Consumers’ understanding of safety – Consumers don’t always have a good understanding of risk. They often assume a product is safer than it is, and don’t follow instructions and warnings. Manufacturers and designers need to take this into account.

Parents’ advocacy – Sometimes action only happens when the people most affected take a stand. (That shouldn’t be necessary).

Recall effectiveness – Whether to replace a faulty product, or supply a DIY fix? How responsive are consumers to recalls?

Consumer vs supplier responsibility – Products with residual hazards rely on user action to ensure safety. (Products that have had as many hazards as possible designed out of them, rely less on consumer behaviour to achieve safety).

Product liability – Manufacturers and importers can be sued if someone is injured. When a product hazard is so well-known, liability defences are harder to make.

Supplying products with known flaws – The episode showed manufacturer knowledge of the tip-over hazard in 2002, with a user instruction warning from that time. Prior knowledge can also impact a supplier’s litigation defence.

Regulator’s roles – What role can and should government play in achieving safe products?

Furniture tip-over prevention

There’s an implicit contract between product manufacturers/suppliers and their consumers. Products should be as safe as reasonably expected when sold. For products that retain a level of hazard, the consumer has responsibility to use it safety.

Some hazards are unspoken – for instance, people understand that knives have to be sharp, and they need to take care when using them. No warning is needed.

Some residual hazards come with instructions, and protective devices or equipment. But because consumers don’t always understand risk, manufacturers and designers need to take this into account.

With furniture that’s unstable when tested, there can be over-reliance on consumers’ actions to anchor the product to a wall.

Product safety pyramid

The product safety pyramid[1] shows that inherently safe design is the best option. Next most valuable are guards and protective devices; with consumer information being the least effective. 

Product safety pyramid

For furniture stability, it’s solid materials and good design at the pyramid base; then, providing anchors and drawer locks with a product, which count as protective devices; and last, warnings and instructions are least reliable.

In Australia, the National Retail Association has produced a guide on furniture and TV tip-over prevention, aimed at retailers and other suppliers. I chaired the working group to develop this guide, inspired after attending a talk in the USA by a member of Parents Against Tip-overs, Lisa Siefert.

The NRA guide includes some excellent information on furniture design to help suppliers understand and achieve stability.

And, as consumers, we all need to spread the word on the need to anchor furniture, especially if children and the elderly are around. Even if all new furniture becomes stable, there’s a vast amount of old items that remain unsafe.

See also my 2015 blog article, Furniture tip-overs – safety strategy.

Watch for yourself

I encourage everyone involved in the consumer product market to watch this episode, and see what lessons can apply to your own business. (Please note, it spends much of the first half examining IKEA’s practices, including timber sourcing. If you lose interest in the illegal logging bit, skip through to about the 34 minute mark).

Other episodes in the Broken docuseries cover hazards associated with vaping and cosmetics.

[1] Based on ISO standard 10377 – Product safety – Guidelines for suppliers