Berke On Safety: Which is better: Death by falling or by fire?

Nov. 20, 2008
Readers occasionally contact me in response to these columns. I recently corresponded with Michael Fischer of the Kellen Co. about the window-screen problem.

Readers occasionally contact me in response to these columns. I recently corresponded with Michael Fischer of the Kellen Co. about the window-screen problem (see my August 21 column).

Mr. Fischer wrote:

“I serve as Director of Codes and Regulatory Compliance for the Window and Door Manufacturers Association. I am a member of [a number of standardwriting groups concerned with child window safety.]

“In May 2008, the CPSC said that children under age five account for eight window-fall deaths annually. You reported 20 per year. While every child’s death is a tragedy, success in major cities like Boston and New York, where window-guard programs have all but eliminated child window-fall deaths, is a major factor in the improvement.

“The window industry has been working to expand ASTM F2090 product standards to include devices that limit the window opening to 4 in. when children are present and comply with escape and rescue provisions.

“ASTM and CPSC say occupants or rescuers have to be able to quickly release guards in windows up to the maximum reach of a ladder truck, 70 ft. Your recommendation that only devices in first and second-floor windows need to permit quick release could lead to tragic results in a fire.

“In addition, ASTM F2090 requires window-fall prevention devices to withstand a static load of 60 lb and a 100 ft-lb pendulum test, not the 150-lb force you mention.”

I would never advocate sacrificing fire safety for fall prevention. Occupants of first or second-floor rooms can often escape under their own power while firemen regularly break through windows with boots or axes to rescue those on higher floors.

I still believe that if window and screen manufacturers placed top priority on preventing falls, safety would be built into their products. Then we wouldn’t have to worry whether parents know an add-on device is needed for their children’s safety.

Manufacturers are already 90% of the way to having a safe system. Failure of the weak “fingers” that hold the screen in the window led to every window fall I have seen. A design that secured the screen better, as confirmed by in-depth testing, along with standards that are more cognizant of human factors, would make falls out of screened windows a thing of the past.

Mr. Fischer replied: “If a manufacturer created screens that work as you suggest, if they had no adverse effect on fire safety, and if they were sold with every new home, it would take 50 years or more to convert the existing inventory. Consistent safety messaging would be difficult if some windows could be left open while others should not be. A child might be used to leaning on one of the new-design screens at home, and when visiting grandparents try the same thing and have a fall.”

You could say the same about any safety innovation: seat belts, automatic extension of landing gear, ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), garage-door safeties, etc. When safer window screens become available, city governments will require their installation before existing houses are resold. The same is done now with smoke detectors and GFCIs.

From my work with ANSI, I know it takes eight to 10 years to negotiate a change in a standard. But standards are the minimum level of safety; a safe product goes beyond a standard’s requirements.

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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