Berke on Safety: Why a Window Screen is Not a Safety Device

Aug. 21, 2008
Every year in the United States nearly 5,000 toddlers fall out of windows, resulting in casualties up to and including spinal injury, paralysis, and death. About 20 children die annually from this type of fall.

Edited by Jessica Shapiro

A window screen is not a safety device. It is designed to keep insects out, not to keep children in. Yet it is reasonably foreseeable that children will fall against windows or window openings when at play.

When people hear that a child has fallen out of a window and has suffered serious injury, their first assumption may be that the screen material pulled out of the screen frame. This failure mode is rare, if it happens at all.

I have seen multiple pictures in the news media and personally viewed fall sites while conducting accident investigations. I have not seen a single instance where the screen material tore or broke free from its frame. In every case, the screen frame itself was pushed out from the window.

It appears that when pressure is applied perpendicular to the plane of the screen, the small, weak tabs holding the screen in place bend. This bending frees the screen frame to be pushed out from the window frame.

Serious falls out of screened windows in every region of the country have been recorded for years. However, almost nothing is being done about it by the window and screen manufacturers. Most manufacturers try to paper over this design deficiency with poorly designed and poorly placed warning labels.

Some window manufacturers are supporting the full height of the screen frame on both sides by enclosing the frame of the screen within the structure of the window. This approach has great potential to keep small children from falling out. I have never seen an accidental fall involving the fully supported frame design.

Caregivers can also install aftermarket windowsafety devices. For windows on the first and possibly second floors, these devices must have a release mechanism that lets a teenager or adult remove it quickly without tools. This allows residents to evacuate through the window in case of a fire or other emergency.

On the 3rd floor and above, night latches that only allow the window to open 3 to 4 in. and window guards that can withstand 150 lb of force should be considered essential safety equipment and be a permanent part of the window.

Unfortunately, most people do not know that these devices exist or where to buy them. Some of them can be purchased at home-repair stores or on the Internet. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) suggests contacting Automatic Specialties (800-445- 2370), LL Building Products (800-755-9392) or John Sterling Corp. (800-367-5726) for more information about purchasing window safety devices.

I am looking forward to the day when window and screen systems are designed so a child cannot fall out. The first window manufacturer who designs such a system at a reasonable price will capture the marketplace.

Lanny Berke is a registered professional engineer and Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at [email protected].

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