Antonio Bonacruz is a lab test coordinator at CHOICE. For the past 22 years, he's performed safety and ease of use tests on a range of children's products, including toys, cots, prams, bassinets and change tables.
He also sits on various committees for Standards Australia, where he helps write the safety requirements for children's products, including toys, cots, prams, dummies and trampolines.
Here, he reveals what goes on in the CHOICE labs.
Antonio puts a stuffed toy through its paces on our test rig.
Describe your job in one sentence
I test kids' products.
Tell me about your work with Standards Australia
People think we just have fun and talk about toys, but we help write the safety requirements that define what standards a toy or kids' product should meet to be considered safe.
We also spell out all the tests that you need to do when assessing products, such as how much force you use to pull or twist, what measurements the product should and shouldn't have, and so on. It's serious business.
What do you look for when you test toys?
We test according to the safety standards, but people might not realise that only applies to toys aimed at children under three years old. For toys aimed at older children, with the exception of toys that discharge projectiles (like toy guns or bows and arrows) and toys with multiple magnets, there's no mandatory standard, only a voluntary one.
But we look for sharp points, sharp edges… if it's a toy chest we check that it has ventilation so a child can breathe if they become trapped inside. We check that toys can't expand past a certain point in case they get swallowed and then expand inside a child. We look out for stretchy rubber toys that can be a strangulation hazard… the list goes on.
What advice would you give parents about buying safe toys?
Buy from reputable retailers. They offer a higher level of safety and quality assurance than $2 shops or market stalls, which is where most of the unsafe toys we've tested were bought.
But even if a toy passes safety tests, there's always the possibility that someone could modify it and it could become a weapon.
I have a toy in my office I use as an example. It's a plastic crossbow for ages 10+ and in its current form with the plastic safety cap on the end of the arrow, it's safe. But if someone removed the safety cap and put it through a pencil sharpener, it would have a very sharp point and could be deadly.
Those things aren't covered by safety standards. You can only test toys the way they've been supplied and are meant to be used.
Toys can be modified and turned into weapons.
How do you think of this stuff?
Well, kids are inventive! They might be curious and they might try to modify things and that's where the harm could come from.
I don't want to sound pessimistic, but it sounds like every toy can harm you.
If you give your child age-appropriate toys, then they're generally safe. Having small parts doesn't automatically mean a toy is unsafe. For example, if you're 10 years old it's OK to have Lego. Just don't share it with your younger brother or sister.
This standalone bassinet (yes, really) has serious safety failures.
What's the shonkiest product you've ever seen at CHOICE?
The Cardboard Box The Bed Box is one of the worst bassinets we've ever seen. Sure, it's great for storage and it comes with a blanket and swaddle, but it simply doesn't have breathable sides which could be deadly.
Don't countries such as Finland and Scotland give new mothers similar cardboard bassinets?
I think one of the rationales behind doing it is that this is better than parents co-sleeping with their newborns, because they could end up crushing the child. So it's the lesser of two evils. But our advice is don't use them. Put your child in a proper cot.
But not the All 4 Bubs Lunar Cot?
Definitely not! We tested the All 4 Bubs Lunar Cot in 2016 and it's still one of the worst cots we've ever seen. It may look harmless, but it failed our strength and stability tests and we found it posed a head and neck entrapment hazard and choking hazard, which could be deadly.
CHOICE scored this cot zero out of 100, after it failed key safety tests.
What happens when a product fails CHOICE safety tests?
We report our findings to the ACCC, and in the instance of the Lunar cot the ACCC issued a recall. We also send what we call our data check sheets to the manufacturer or supplier and give them a chance to explain. Sometimes their response is hostile and some even threaten legal action against us. I don't think anyone's succeeded.
But it's important for people to remember that with cots and prams there are always safety issues, as a huge percentage fail our safety tests. So my best advice would be to read CHOICE and follow our recommendations.
What's the most common reaction you get when you tell people you work at CHOICE?
I think the impression is that toy testing is kids' work, and that all we do is play with toys. But that's not true. I don't play with toys, I test them. I have to follow a strict series of rules set out by the National Association of Testing Authorities, which includes conducting the tests in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment, and documenting each and every action we do on a toy.
So no, I don't test the fun factor.
Antonio uses a 95mm spherical probe to check for suitable gaps between the bars and panels of the cot to avoid head and neck entrapment injury.
What part of your job would an outsider think is bizarre?
Probably that my heart breaks whenever the eyes or ears come off a stuffed toy. Because if it's a nice toy I hate to break it, but I have to as it's part of our testing.
Also, people don't realise the extent of testing we do. When we run lab tours, people are often amazed at the extent of hands-on scientific testing we perform.
My heart breaks whenever the eyes or ears come off a stuffed toy
What's also really interesting is that our laboratory manager makes sure all our instruments are calibrated so they give the correct readings or measurements. For example, if I have a one-metre rule, it's calibrated to ensure it's really one metre long. Same with our temperature settings. If I say it's 22 degrees celsius, it has to really be 22, not 21.8.
That level of detail is pretty extraordinary…
That's how good we are! That's why we're called the laboratory.
What's the most surprising or useful fact you've learnt at CHOICE?
That not everything that's available to buy in stores in Australia is safe. That's one of the great things about CHOICE – through our testing, we're able to identify dodgy products.
What would nine-year-old you say about your job?
I'd be so excited at the beginning, but then I'd realise that testing is not just play. It's hard work.
Testing aside, what's your favourite toy?
I like Japanese robot transformer toys. I have a few of them. The collectible ones are really expensive, so I don't let my son touch them. [Laughs]