An estimated 2600 Australians receive hospital treatment for injuries caused by toppling furniture and televisions each year – which equates to about 50 a week.
In the past few years there's been an increase in awareness of this issue, due in part to the high-profile recall of Ikea dressers in the US following the deaths of several children, as well as a global consumer-awareness campaign urging people to anchor their furniture.
But just how aware of the issue are we really – and how many of us actually secure our furniture to a wall? To find out, we surveyed CHOICE members and supporters* to ask them what they think about furniture and TV stability risk and prevention.
*A total of 1183 Voice Your Choice members and supporters across Australia took part in our survey, which we carried out in May 2020.
50 people a week in Australia are injured by toppling TVs and furniture.
In 2015, an ACCC report into Consumer Awareness of Furniture Stability Risks and Prevention found that 50% of respondents mentioned securing furniture to the wall was a way to prevent tip-overs.
Encouragingly, in our own survey, 76% of respondents said that anchoring furniture and TVs to a wall (or assembling them using the instructions, assuming they included the step of anchoring) was the best strategy to prevent furniture and TV tip-overs.
Just over half (55%) said they currently have some or all furniture secured to the wall, with TVs and bookcases being the two items most commonly secured.
We also found that people with children are more likely to anchor furniture and TVs – nearly seven in ten (69%) say they secure some or all furniture.
Safety concerns front of mind
Concern about safety was the key reason for anchoring TVs and furniture (64%). Comments included: "I've heard of children getting brain damage from falling TVs," "An acquaintance's child was severely injured when she climbed on a chest of drawers," and "Bookcase was unstable on old wooden floor." Many also said it was simply "common sense".
Worryingly, only one in five respondents (21%) said they have anchored dressers/chests of drawers in their homes. This is despite multiple high-profile tip-over tragedies worldwide, some of which eventually led to the recall of Ikea's Malm dressers in the US and Canada (they were never recalled in Australia).
Renters vs homeowners
People who haven't secured furniture or TVs (45% of respondents) have a variety of reasons as to why. But the main reason depended on whether they owned their home or not.
For homeowners, the key reason was that they simply don't see a need (55%). Although that was also a reason among renters, 58% said the number one reason was that their landlord or managing agent didn't allow it. Their frustration was evident in some of their comments.
Because I'm renting, we aren't able to secure freestanding furniture to walls ... It feels like punishment for not owning our own property
"Because I'm renting, we aren't able to secure freestanding furniture to walls," says one respondent. "We can be as careful as we like, but the safety of my child is compromised because we are not able to follow the safety recommendations of things like bookcases and stands in our home. It feels like punishment for not owning our own property."
Another said: "Furniture should be made properly to begin with but securing furniture upon entering a rental property should be accepted standard practice."
What do tenancy laws say?
In 2019, WA passed new laws stipulating that landlords must allow tenants to anchor furniture to a wall to prevent a child, or a person with a disability, from being hurt or killed. Known as "Reef's law", the change in legislation was sparked by the tragic death of Perth toddler Reef Kite, who was crushed by a chest of drawers in his family's rented home. (The family's landlord had refused to let them anchor the item.)
Outside WA, the law isn't quite as clear cut. You'll still need to ask your landlord for permission to install a furniture strap, angle brace or anchor to the wall (and probably offer to repair any damage that installation may have caused when your tenancy ends), but they're not legally bound to approve any requests. Make sure you get any approvals in writing.
The dangers of toppling furniture
Since 2001, at least 22 children under the age of nine have died in Australia as a result of injury from toppling furniture or TVs.
Most toppling furniture deaths are caused by asphyxiation (the child can't breathe under the weight of the toppled object), but other serious injuries can also occur, including:
- broken bones, fractures or dislocations
- cuts or open wounds
- crush (chest) injuries
- internal injuries
- severing of limbs
- brain injury.
Our survey found that of those who secured furniture, 4% did so because either they or someone they knew had experienced a furniture tip-over previously.
"We had an IKEA wardrobe tip over onto our son," said one respondent. "We are so lucky it hit something on the way down and didn't kill him."
Another recalled their time spent working in the disability sector: "I had a client, a child, who had a bookcase fall on him. He sustained a severe brain injury and was totally dependent for all his needs. Devastating. So important to secure such furniture."
We had an IKEA wardrobe tip over onto our son. We are so lucky it hit something on the way down and didn't kill him
Children under the age of three are at greatest risk of injury from toppling because they tend to climb on furniture. But that doesn't mean that older children and adults aren't affected too.
Even one of our adult respondents had a recent run-in: "About four weeks ago I had too many drawers in a four-drawer filing cabinet open. The filing cabinet slowly tipped onto me. Fortunately my wife was nearby so she was able to extricate me! Lesson learned."
There are no mandatory safety standards for toppling furniture in Australia, but there is a voluntary best practice guide. It recommends that TV and furniture suppliers:
- provide products with anchor devices that are fit for purpose
- provide information about tip-over hazards and the various ways to anchor furniture and televisions
- display warnings close to tall furniture and TVs, strongly advising people to use anchors to secure them to a wall or other building structure.
Who is responsible for safety?
Many furniture and TV manufacturers say their products are safe as long as they're attached to the wall according to instructions.
But should it be the responsibility of the buyer to make a product safe? In our survey, nearly seven in ten respondents (65%) don't think so. They say it should be up to the manufacturers to design safe and stable furniture.
"The concept of having anything 'unstable' for sale in Australia is incredible, at the very least, there should be (AS) standards that dictate the minimum amount of force required to tip an item," said one respondent.
Only four in 10 of our survey respondents recalled the anchoring kit being sufficient for the job.
Anchoring not always easy
Securing furniture or TVs to walls isn't always easy for those with limited DIY skills, who have to contend with brick or concrete walls, or who don't own the right tools.
And even if a product comes with an anchoring kit, only four in ten of our survey respondents (39%) recalled the kit being sufficient for the job.
Others found that the included screws weren't suitable for the surface of the wall (19%); the included straps weren't suitable (e.g. too short) for anchoring the item (8%); and the instructions on how to secure the item properly weren't clear (5%).
More could be done
There's no doubt that anchoring unstable furniture and large TVs saves lives.
But should these items also be subject to mandatory safety standards? One thing's for sure: the main issue with voluntary safety standards or best practice guides is precisely that they're voluntary – businesses don't have to comply with them. And if a recall is later issued, there are often problems with getting the message out to the public.
The results can be devastating. For example, in 2017 in the US, a two-year-old died after a Malm dresser fell on him – one year after Ikea issued its recall of the item. Tragically, his parents said they hadn't heard that the dresser had been recalled.
The main issue with voluntary safety standards or best practice guides is precisely that they're voluntary
This is one of the reasons we think Australia needs a General Safety Provision – a law that compels businesses to make sure the things they sell are safe before they're available for the public to buy.
"Australia is over-reliant on the recall system, where businesses recall products usually after they've already caused harm," says Amy Pereira, CHOICE product safety campaigner. "We need a system where products are rigorously tested before they go on sale so that we as consumers don't have to figure out for ourselves whether a product will harm us or not."
Buying and safety tips
To help people choose safer furniture, the ACCC gives the following tips:
- Buy low-set furniture or furniture with sturdy, stable and broad bases.
- Look for furniture that comes with its own safety information or equipment for anchoring it to the walls.
- Test the furniture in the shop to make sure it's stable. For example, pull out the top drawers and apply a little pressure to see how stable it is – make sure the drawers don't fall out easily.
- Attach, mount, bolt or otherwise secure furniture to walls and floors.
- Don't put heavy items on top shelves of bookcases.
- Discourage small children from climbing on furniture.
- Don't put tempting items such as favourite toys on top of furniture that encourage children to climb it.
- Don't put unstable furniture near places where children play.
- Put locking devices on all drawers and doors to stop children opening them and using them as steps.