Furniture Anchors Not an Easy Fix, as Child Tip-Over Deaths Persist
A CR investigation shows obstacles to using lifesaving anchors; secret shoppers had a hard time finding them at major retailers
After her 2-year-old son, Shane, died from a furniture tip-over in 2011, Lisa Siefert started attending health fairs and other events to hand out furniture wall anchor kits—delicate-looking hardware packaged like picture hooks that are meant to secure furniture to walls.
She was tormented by the idea that families with small children didn’t know about this hidden tip-over danger in their homes. So spreading the word became her life’s work.
Now, six years after starting a foundation in her son’s name, she isn’t sure what difference she has made, if any.
Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a child safety organization, says that anchoring furniture is a “complicated procedure.” And while she hopes anchors have helped to prevent tip-over incidents, “I don’t think it’s a panacea,” she says. Having spent decades leading organizations that focus on public interest research, education, and the prevention of childhood injuries, Cowles knows that getting parents to install anchors is a tough sell. “Frankly, I rarely talk to someone who anchors their furniture. People say, ‘No, my child is never alone.’ Everyone thinks their dresser is not going to tip over . . . until it happens.”
Elliot Kaye, a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, says that asking consumers to modify their behavior in the name of safety, particularly when it involves time, money, and skill, is “the least effective way to address the hazard. . . . There is a role for anchoring,” he says, “but it would be great if the burden were not on consumers to take action.”
As the government and others push wall anchors as critical to preventing more tragedies, CR’s evidence suggests that telling parents to anchor furniture to the walls in their homes is an inadequate solution for a devastating yet preventable problem.
“While we recognize that anchoring is the only action consumers can take today to ensure their furniture is secure, we don’t believe it is a sustainable long-term solution to a systemic issue,” says Don Huber, CR’s director of product safety. “The furniture should be designed to be more stable in the first place in order to more effectively reduce the number of deaths and injuries associated with furniture tip-overs.”
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What We Found
Because anchoring is key to preventing tip-overs, CR decided to assess its availability and adoption among Americans. We did this through a nationally representative survey and also sent secret shoppers to retail outlets to look for anchors.
Our survey of 1,502 U.S. adults revealed that only about a quarter of Americans have anchored furniture in their homes.
Why? The specialized anchoring hardware, which goes by several names (wall anchors, furniture straps, and anti-tip kits, to name a few) and takes many forms (steel cables, metal L brackets, nylon webbing, and zip ties), is hard to explain and requires some skill to attach to a stud in the wall, so many people don’t do it.
Consumers are reliant on anchors because currently, the industry operates under a voluntary stability standard, which means furniture makers don’t have to follow it. The standard states that a dresser or other clothing storage unit taller than 30 inches should stay upright with 50 pounds of weight hanging from an open drawer while all other drawers are closed and the dresser is empty. This standard exempts dressers measuring 30 inches and shorter (video). The American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA), the main trade group for the industry, urges full compliance with the voluntary standard and says it relies on anchoring as an additional safety measure.
Another reason many Americans may not anchor: Only dressers taller than 30 inches are covered by the voluntary standard, so only those that comply with it are required to come with anchors. So if you purchase a dresser that does not comply with the standard (such as one that is 30 inches or shorter) or you buy or borrow a used dresser, you might need to buy anchoring hardware separately. This is particularly relevant because only 35 percent of Americans with young children in their homes buy dressers new, according to our survey.
To see how easy these anchors were to find, we deployed secret shoppers to check on the availability of wall anchors at five major retailers around the country—Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, and Walmart. In many cases, the shoppers had difficulty locating the anchors in the stores and found that the sales associates were unaware of the lifesaving devices. Only one of the 13 secret shoppers who went to Target locations around the country found a wall anchor in a store. When CR asked Target about these secret shopper findings, the retailer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“If parents drive to Target and then they go to Walmart, and the anchors aren’t there,” Siefert says. “then how hard are they going to try to get this product?”
As part of an ongoing investigation that we launched two years ago, CR also bought 42 dressers for evaluation. We put them through a series of three progressively tougher stability tests to see how they would perform. While 13 failed all but one of the tests, 20 dressers passed all the testing, underscoring that some manufacturers can successfully design more stable dressers.
Dressers are particularly prone to tipping because their center of gravity can shift rapidly when a drawer is opened or when weight, such as the weight of a child, is placed on one or more open drawers, says James Dickerson, CR’s chief scientific officer.
This hazard is especially dangerous when children are involved. “Unfortunately, young children are the perfect targets for tip-over injuries,” says Laura Jana, M.D., author of “The Toddler Brain” and associate research professor at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University. “Between the ages of 3 and 5, children are only beginning to develop the executive function skills necessary to anticipate consequences or to stop and change their course of action if and when they realize something is wrong—when a dresser is unsteady, for example. This, combined with their small physical size, makes young children and unsecured dressers a set-up for potential disaster.”
CR supports a strong, mandatory furniture stability standard for the industry. It would include dressers 30 inches and shorter and a test weight of 60 pounds hanging from an open drawer. Sixty pounds represents the upper weight range for children affected by tip-overs. And by making the stability testing mandatory, regulators would more easily be able to enforce the standard and gain industry cooperation for recalls.
“Strong stability standards that are mandatory would mitigate the hazard whether or not the furniture is anchored,” says CR’s Huber.
Like many parents we interviewed, Siefert did not know about the furniture tip-over issue, let alone furniture anchors, before the unthinkable happened. When she bought her babyproofing gear at a large retail store, “furniture straps were not on display,” she says, adding that she “made the mistake of trusting that [the items in the baby-proofing section] were all I needed.”
She remembers that she “purchased most every safety device on display—drawer locks and outlet covers and that [type of] thing—and I babyproofed the house to the best of my knowledge.”
Parents Erica and Aaron Fried also did not think about furniture tip-overs as a hazard in their home. They worked hard to babyproof their home, but in 2016, their 3-year-old daughter, Harper, died after a furniture tip-over.
“My house is annoying for visitors—all of the kitchen cabinets have locks on them.” Erica Fried says. “The stairs have gates. Even my daughter’s bedroom on the day of her accident had a gate on the door.”
In 2015, in response to tip-over incidents, the Consumer Product Safety Commission launched the Anchor It! campaign, which was soon backed by organizations such as Safe Kids Worldwide, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the AHFA. But when CR asked Commissioner Kaye whether the Anchor It! campaign has led to a decrease in tip-over injuries or deaths, he said, “we have absolutely zero way of knowing. . . . It’s a total guess, and anyone who is telling you that it’s working has no basis in fact.” And yet, because there has been no other reliable safety message to deliver, the CPSC and others continue to put their resources into spreading the word about anchoring.
In 2015, Ikea launched an anchoring campaign, called Secure it!, in the wake of several highly publicized deaths connected to Ikea dressers. In the stores, in catalogs, and online, there are now signs about furniture straps and videos about anchoring. According to a spokesperson, the company has “invested millions of dollars in the effort to educate consumers.”
“We just keep spending money year after year without having any clue whether it’s the right amount of money, whether it’s the right message, and whether we’re reaching the audience that needs to be reached,” Kaye says.
Robert Adler, another CPSC commissioner, says that few health and education campaigns are effective in changing consumer behavior. “The big problem with a lot of education campaigns is that they don’t run long enough, they don’t spend enough money, they don’t use multimedia approaches, and they mainly work with the educated elite,” he says.
Consumer Reports’ nationally representative survey was designed to examine the broad question of whether anchoring is a viable solution to furniture tip-over incidents and to gather data on attitudes and behaviors around furniture anchors. According to our survey:
- Only 27 percent of Americans have anchored furniture in their home.
- Among Americans with kids under 6 at home, 40 percent anchor their furniture.
- Nearly half of adults with children in their home say they don’t anchor furniture because their children are not left unattended around furniture. Incident data, however, show that many dresser tip-overs happen shortly after children wake up from a night’s sleep or a nap, when they’re often alone in their rooms.
- Other reasons Americans don’t anchor vary: Forty-one percent thought the furniture was stable enough; 25 percent didn’t want to put holes in their walls; 16 percent didn’t want to put holes in their furniture; 7 percent aren’t sure what hardware to buy; and 7 percent have never heard of anchoring furniture.
- The primary reason people anchor furniture: They bought the piece new, and it came with anchoring hardware.
- Only 35 percent of Americans who have a young child living in their home or frequently visiting bought their child’s dresser new. Twenty-nine percent got their child’s dresser used, while more than a third had the dresser already.
Secret Shoppers Seek Out Anchors
With so much emphasis placed on the importance of anchoring furniture and so much variability among dressers, CR decided to spot-check major retailers that sell hardware and babyproofing items to gauge the accessibility of furniture anchors in stores. Specifically, we deployed secret shoppers in different regions of the country to the following stores: Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, and Walmart. The secret shoppers searched store aisles, asked employees for guidance, and took pictures of wall displays.
For some, the first obstacle to locating the devices was finding store employees who knew what they were. Secret shoppers used the term “furniture anti-tip kit” as a backup. Our results show that the sales associates at Ace Hardware and Lowe’s were familiar with the anchoring devices, but many employees at Target and Walmart had not heard of them.
“At Walmart they had no idea what I was looking for even after explaining the product,” says one secret shopper in Florida. “I was taken to fasteners.” The same shopper had a similar experience at a Home Depot, reporting that the sales associate still did not know what furniture anchors were even after hearing an explanation. This shopper didn’t find the furniture anchors at either store.
At a Target in New York, “two separate associates didn’t know where to direct me,” says a secret shopper. Similarly, a different shopper at a Target in Missouri asked two associates for help. Neither one knew what furniture anchors were or whether Target sold them. (The stores did not carry the anchors.)
Several of the Home Depot locations our secret shoppers went to in Arizona, California, Michigan, and Texas had furniture anchors in stock, but the sales associates in some instances did not know what the item was or where to locate them in the stores.
At the Ace Hardware and Lowe’s stores that were visited, more often than not the secret shoppers were able to locate wall anchors—and the majority of the time, the sales associates had heard of wall anchors for furniture.
CR’s secret shopper in Oregon was unable to find furniture anchors in any of the five different stores checked.
Consumer Reports reached out to all five retail outlets to ask them whether they sold anchors at their stores.
A Target spokesperson said, “Target does sell these items and they are located in the baby section in store.”
A Home Depot representative said the company sells furniture anti-tip kits in stores and online. But it’s “always good to check online first to make sure they are in stock at your local store.” (There were 14 secret shoppers who went to Home Depot locations, and 11 of the stores had anchors in stock.)
A Walmart spokesperson said that the retailer sells furniture anchors in the store and that they are available in the “baby department.” (Six of the 12 secret shoppers who went to Walmart stores around the U.S. were unable to locate furniture anchors.)
A Lowe’s spokesperson said that the retailer sells “hinged furniture straps” in stores and online. (Of the 13 Lowe’s locations that CR’s secret shoppers checked, 11 stores had the devices in stock.)
Ace Hardware did not return multiple requests for comment. (Eight of the 12 Ace Hardware locations checked by secret shoppers had furniture anchors in stock at the store.)
The Need for Hardware Help
Buying furniture anchors is only part of the equation. Parents need the proper tools and know-how to install the devices correctly, or they must find a professional or a friend who can do it for them. The process can be confusing and time-consuming, and many people get tripped up by these hurdles.
“The most difficult part is getting people to install anchors themselves or getting someone else to do it,” says Brett Horn, who lost his son, Charlie, to a dresser tip-over in 2007 and co-founded Charlie’s House, a nonprofit home safety organization, with his wife, Jenny Horn. “How do we get people to act? My organization provides a lot of straps, and I don’t think I want to know the percentage that are truly installed.”
CR’s survey found that of the 73 percent of Americans who have not anchored furniture in their home, 9 percent say they haven’t done so because they don’t feel confident in their ability to install the anchors correctly, and another 9 percent say they don’t know how to locate a stud on the wall.
“The challenge is a lot of parents aren’t real comfortable screwing into the walls. They don’t necessarily have the tools to do it correctly,” says Peter Kerin, founder and owner of Foresight Childproofing, a company that creates child-safe environments and installs gear, and is based in Minneapolis.
To be sure, installing anchors is not an immediately intuitive or simple task—and the type of tools and anchors needed can vary depending on the walls of the home. For instance, Kerin says: “If you live in a home built before the 1960s that has plaster walls, you have an additional challenge because it’s harder to find a stud.”
All these hardware challenges reduce the likelihood that consumers will follow through on the anchoring message that has been promoted. Cowles, of Kids in Danger, notes that there are not many examples of successful education campaigns that rely primarily on the public to take action. “There are very few that you can point to over the history of children’s issues where you can show a concrete level of improvement based solely on education or telling parents what they need to do,” Cowles says.
An example of the rare education campaign that safety proponents believe has been successful, Cowles says, is Safe to Sleep (formerly known as the Back to Sleep campaign), which promotes safe sleep practices for infants. The reasons for its success are varied, but it has one important feature: The suggested behavior doesn’t require many steps from the public.
When it comes to more complex educational campaigns that seem to have had an impact, they are “almost always accompanied by legislation,” says Cowles, who points to the Stop Medicine Abuse campaign, which discouraged teenagers from using over-the-counter cough medicines to get high. “There was a lot of education that went into it, but in fact what went along with it was [legal] requirements that [cough medications] be placed behind the counter so that children under a certain age couldn’t buy them.”
“I'm perfectly fine in supporting the Anchor It! campaign. I think under the current circumstances, it is one of the best things we’ve got,” says Commissioner Adler. But in addition, he says, “the need for redesigning furniture is something I think is incredibly important.”
What You Can Do
In the meantime, anchors remain consumers’ most reliable defense against furniture tip-overs. Whether you’ve just bought a new dresser or you’re using one you’ve had for years, it needs to be secured to the wall. “Even if we put a mandatory standard [for dresser stability] into effect tomorrow, there are a lot of dressers out there that don’t comply,” says Ann Marie Buerkle, acting chairman of the CPSC.
And while anchoring furniture may not be a skill you’ve acquired yet, it’s possible to learn. If you have the proper tools and the inclination, follow CR’s anchoring tips; if you don’t feel equipped to anchor on your own, hire a professional who can.
Keeping Kids Safe From Furniture Tip-Overs
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