Two Tip-Overs in One Week Highlight Continued Threat of Unstable Furniture

    The incidents, including one death, occurred as Congress considers the STURDY Act, a bill meant to make furniture safer

    McGee family
    The McGees on a family outing the day after a nightstand tipped over and nearly struck 3-year-old Mason (in front).
    Courtesy of Janet McGee

    After Janet McGee’s nearly 2-year-old son Ted was killed in 2016 when a dresser tipped over onto him, she vowed to do all she could to protect her other children. One step was anchoring every substantial piece of furniture in her home—even a plastic toy tool bench—to the wall.

    So McGee was shocked when on March 12th, a two-drawer Trinell nightstand made by Ashley Furniture—which was anchored to the wall—fell over in her living room, narrowly missing her 3-year-old son Mason.

    “We teach our kids not to climb on furniture but kids will be kids, and when Mason went to pull on the top drawer, the anchor popped out of the nightstand and it toppled over," says McGee, who helped found the group Parents Against Tip-Overs, which advocates for stronger stability requirements for furniture. “It happened so fast. Luckily he was able to jump out of the way and was not hurt, but I can’t help thinking about what would have happened if he hadn’t been able to move, or if my husband hadn’t been steps away from him—so many what-ifs.”

    More On Furniture Tip-Overs

    The seriousness of the near-miss sunk in even more for McGee when she learned the next day through her work with PAT that a 3-year-old girl in Maryland had been killed when a dresser fell on her on March 11th, the night before Mason had escaped injury from the nightstand.

    “I was feeling so grateful that we’d gotten to wake up the next day after the nightstand fell, and go on a family outing instead of planning a funeral—because I know what that feels like—and then there I was talking with a mother via Facebook messenger who had just lost her daughter to a tip-over,” McGee says.

    The Maryland death comes just one month after yet another tip-over fatality. Kaesyn Williams, of Atlanta, was just 23-months old when he was killed in February by a dresser that tipped over onto him shortly after he woke up from a nap.

    “It makes me think that we need the STURDY Act now more than ever,” says McGee, referring to the Stop Tip-Overs of Unstable, Risky Dressers on Youth Act. The bill—which is backed by consumer safety advocacy groups such as PAT, Consumer Reports, and Kids In Danger—would require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to create a federal rule that would mandate manufacturers to make more stable furniture. Right now, furniture makers can voluntarily choose to follow an industry standard. The STURDY Act passed in the House of Representatives in September 2019 but did not come to a vote in the Senate before the end of last session. Last month the bill was reintroduced in both the House and the Senate with substantial bipartisan support.

    Children are getting seriously injured and even killed by furniture tip-overs,” says Gabe Knight, a policy analyst at CR. “The STURDY Act is the single fastest way to get strong safety rules in place to prevent furniture tip-over tragedies. Not one more family should suffer the preventable loss of a child from this long-known hidden hazard.”

    McGee adds, “I’ve always believed in the bill, but having this near miss happen even after I anchored the furniture just makes it feel even more necessary. I couldn’t have made this up if I tried.”

    An Ongoing Threat, With or Without Anchors

    Each year, an estimated 19,900 people go to the emergency room for injuries related to furniture tip-overs, and between 2000 and 2019, 351 people died from tip-overs involving furniture, according to a recent report from the CPSC.

    The solution often proposed by furniture manufacturers is that consumers should anchor their furniture to the wall. But CR’s ongoing investigation, as well as McGee’s recent experience, shows that anchors are not a sufficient fix. Some renters aren’t allowed to make holes in the wall for anchors due to the terms of their lease, and many other people don’t know that anchors are needed to keep furniture from tipping over.

    For example, 41 percent of people who have not used the anchors said one reason was that they thought their furniture seemed stable, according to a CR nationally representative survey (PDF) of 1,502 U.S. adults conducted in 2018

    There are also many people who don’t have the skill to install wall anchors, and even for those people who do have the skill, like McGee, anchors don’t always hold. For instance, McGee anchored the nightstand, which was part of a juvenile bedroom set, with a metal anchor kit that she felt would be stronger than the plastic zip tie anchor that came with the nightstand. And because the back of the nightstand was made of particle board, she attached the anchor to the thicker top lip of the nightstand. But the anchor detached from the nightstand when it fell.

    “I followed the directions of the anchor kit as best I could and made a reasonable judgment call about where to place the anchor on the furniture,” McGee says. “But this just really makes me question the whole anchor kit process even more. And I can’t stop thinking, ‘when can I stop worrying about a piece of furniture falling on my child again? When can we feel safe?’”

    Ashley Furniture did not respond to CR’s request for comment but an employee did respond to McGee when she reported the incident to the company. The response McGee received stated that she had not used the anchor kit that was included with the nightstand and that she had installed the anchors differently than the instructions. Ashley also did not respond to CR’s question about whether the company had tested the nightstand to see if it complies with the voluntary stability standard for dressers, which currently exempts nightstands.

    CR has also learned of circumstances where anchors have failed even when consumers used ones that came with the product. That was the case, captured on a baby monitor, when an anchored Ikea bookshelf tipped over onto twin toddlers who were spared from harm due to the way the bookshelf fell.

    “We can’t rely on anchors,” says Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger. “Had the furniture not tipped, the anchors would not have been tested and pulled out—so clearly, we need to develop more stable furniture that won’t tip under the weight of toddlers or 3-year-olds.”

    The issue, echoes Knight, is not the anchors, but that dressers are not always built to be stable enough to resist tipping over when a child climbs or pulls on them. “There’s no way to tell if a dresser is more or less stable just by looking at it,” she says. “It’s critical to require strong safety testing before furniture is sold, and that should include tests accounting for real-world scenarios, such as when multiple drawers are open or when a child is pulling or climbing on a dresser.”

    McGee puts it simply: “Anchoring is a Band-Aid to the real problem,” she says. “All these people told me after Ted died that I should’ve anchored my furniture, and guess what? I listened and learned my lesson, and this second tip-over still happened.”

    Rachel Rabkin Peachman

    I'm a science journalist turned investigative reporter on CR's Special Projects team. My job is to shed light on issues affecting people's health, safety, and well-being. I've dug deep into problems such as dangerous doctors, deadly children's products, and contamination in our food supply. Got a tip? Follow me on Twitter (@RachelPeachman).