Burns and scalds are a common injury to children under five and around 1200 a year end up in hospital emergency departments, the single largest group of burns victims. But while parents are alert to the dangers of hot baths, unguarded pots left on the front of stoves, kettles tugged down by their cord or hot cups of coffee pulled from the table, there’s another hazard you’d probably never have thought of — tipping stoves.
- Some upright stoves are unstable and if not fixed properly can topple onto children
- If your upright stove has brackets to stabilise it, check that they're secure.
A reader's story
Michele Pope’s horrifying experience began when she was living in a Department of Housing home in Albury, NSW, with her six young children.
In 1999 her electric upright stove was replaced with a new one — a SIMPSON Celebrity. Three months later, while sterilising some bottles on the back elements of the stove for her four-month-old, Jeremy, Michele nipped to the back of the house to get the vacuum cleaner.
Alerted by screams, she rushed back to the kitchen to find her two youngest daughters — Courtney, then two and half, and Bethany, one and a half — had come into the kitchen, and somehow the stove had tipped on top of them. Both were badly scalded by the hot water from the saucepan that had tipped onto them. Michele rushed both under a cold shower and then the girls were taken to Albury Base Hospital.
Later that day Courtney, suffering scalds to a quarter of her body, was flown to Melbourne for specialist treatment. She remained there two weeks, returning to hospital later for a series of skin grafts. Unsurprisingly, both girls and their mother have felt the after-effects of the shock and trauma for years.
Case study image: Gaynor Matthew
Determined to prevent this happening to anyone else, Michele took court action. “It was the fear in Courtney’s eyes that motivated me,” she says. “I never wanted another child to go through that. Her whole body was shaking like a fish out of water, and her skin was just flying off.” In 2003 she won an action against SIMPSON, the manufacturer of the stove.
In the judgment it was found that while the stove had been properly installed, its design meant it was easily disengaged from the back bracket intended to brace it, after which it could be tipped using pressure applied by just one finger.
Upright stoves can be top-heavy or otherwise unstable, and rely on brackets to stabilise them.
The court found that while SIMPSON had provided instructions for the stove to be stabilised with brackets, it was easy to unintentionally move it off these brackets, rendering it unstable. In the judgment SIMPSON was found to have contravened the Trade Practices Act because the defect was inherent in the stove as designed and manufactured, and was ordered to pay compensation.
ELECTROLUX (the current manufacturer of SIMPSON products) told CHOICE it stopped making the model of stove named in the case in 2000. While it hasn’t recalled existing stoves, it says a new bracket and locking device can be fitted to prevent the stove being pulled away from the wall unless it’s unlocked. The company says it also recently put an additional warning on the oven door of 540 mm wide stoves (like Michele’s) and that it “strongly advises all users of 540 mm stoves to familiarise themselves with the installation method described in the instruction book”.
The NSW Department of Housing says that now as part of its regular assessment of properties the stove’s installation is checked.
Not an isolated incident
CHOICE’s investigations have revealed Michele’s story isn’t an isolated incident. In Victoria alone between 1996 and 2003 there were three other cases of stoves tipping onto children. In the US the problem is better known and studies show that most commonly children use the open oven door as a step, tipping the stove over. The results include fatalities and children needing months, sometimes years, of burns rehabilitation.
Time and again these top-heavy stoves hadn’t been correctly installed with brackets or hadn’t been installed with brackets at all. In New Zealand from mid 1999, Housing New Zealand installed anti-tipping devices in over 7000 homes after a child was scalded in a similar incident.
In Australia, since 2002 the relevant standard has been tightened so that freestanding cooking ranges and ovens must now be able to withstand a load on the door of 22.5 kg without any stabilisation, and a load of 50 kg with stabilisation.
Fixing the problem
CHOICE thinks it’s disappointing there wasn’t a product recall of the SIMPSON Celebrity so that all could be fitted with the new brackets.
We contacted the NSW Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to see if it would consider further action. After reading the court’s decision, it referred the matter to its Electrical Equipment Appliance Safety Committee to consider whether the stove is hazardous and should be recalled. The committee will also consider the adequacy of the current standard. However, the OFT told us that since the standard was tightened the number of stove tipover incidents has reduced.
If you have an upright stove, particularly if there are toddlers or elderly or infirm people in the house or you ever use the stove to steady yourself, make it a priority to have it checked to see if it’s adequately anchored. If you think it isn’t correctly installed, contact an installer or the manufacturer, or your landlord if you’re renting.
llustrations: Mark Tremlett