Bill Kitzes Product Safety Management

Kitzes on Safety

"Unattended" Child

Originally published in the CCH Consumer Product Safety Guide, 2004.

All these products for use by children are subject to the industry voluntary ASTM Standards referenced above. Some of these guidelines are over 25 years old. But they all have at least one thing in common. They each instruct parents and caregivers never to leave children “unattended.” Some require “competent adult supervision.” But what in fact does unattended mean? What is competent adult supervision? If a child gets injured, is it by definition a failure to attend or adequately supervise? Do these statements provide enough information for parents to protect their children from hazards and dangers that are often better known to the manufacturer than they are to consumers? Is it reasonable to hold parents to a higher level of knowledge than the warnings and instructions provide? It is critical to tell parents what the potential dangers are and what a parent can do to protect their kids.

A recent example is instructive.

A child is placed in a portable mesh side crib/play yard. There are height and weight restrictions printed on the floor board and in the instructions. The child is completely within the allowable range and has never attempted to crawl out of the play yard before.

The play yard was set up in a relatively small house of about 1400 feet with an open design. The parents were in and out of the house for a minute or two at a time clearing out the garage and putting trash on the curb. For short periods of time, they could neither hear nor see the child. During one of those brief periods, the child climbed out of the crib and wandered into the backyard pool, causing severe brain damage.

Question -- Was the child unattended? The parents felt that the child was adequately confined in the play yard and they were going in and out of the house for only a few minutes at a time, checking on the child each time. The company believed the parents failed to adequately attend the child because they were not in constant eye contact the entire time the child was confined in the play yard. The company refused to say that a play yard was intended to safety confine a child.

This ambiguous instruction can create many problems for parents. If your child is in a play yard, can you go to the bathroom? Can you go to another room to answer the telephone? Can you go to the kitchen to get the child something to eat or drink? Can you let the child out of your sight? What in fact is the purpose of a play yard if it is not to safely confine a child while the parent is in the house and momentarily out of sight?

Now let’s take the same word “unattended” and apply it to flotation toys as the ASTM F-963 Standard requires.

There are about 300 drowning deaths per year in back yard pools involving children under 5 years old. For the past few months, I have been working with Swimways Corp., an innovative pool and recreational products company in Virginia Beach, Virginia. They first called me to discuss pool safety issues in general and how the company can apply injury reduction programs, specifically in the area of safety information and warnings. Soon, however, I wound up assisting them with recall issues. The problems were fairly small and no one was even close to being hurt, but the company reacted quickly and completely.

This intensified our discussion. With company managers, product developers and engineers, I began to look at their products for non-swimming children under 48 months and found that the standard ASTM warnings were just not enough to adequately inform parents about reasonable supervision of their children. Telling parents never to leave their children “unattended” was just not enough. I spoke with the top management team and we decided to go further and give parents some real guidance.

For example, the company’s Baby Spring Float, a flotation product for non-swimmers up to 24 months is now labeled as follows:

Tip Over
Child may crawl out of seat and fall into the water.
Always stay in the pool and within arm’s reach of your child.

This warning tracks the CPSC proposed label for baby bath seats requiring parents to stay within “arm’s reach.” It is important to note that we also include the ASTM warnings concerning life saving devices, competent adult supervision and never leaving the child unattended in order to ensure at least for now, compliance with the present language.

For older children, 24-48 months, vigilance with a little extra space for the child is appropriate. Thus, the label for Paddles, the swimming dog, states:

Item can swim into deep water
Always keep your children in your sight within
quick and easy reach when they are in the water.
Do not allow children to play where water is too deep
for their swimming ability.

Finally, Swimways looked at the label for a very innovative new product, the Baby Spring Pool. A patented spring around the rim allows a full size kiddie pool to be “folded” for easy storage. Infant children are often placed in the water and can quickly submerge. Taking a cue from a CPSC press release, the pool warning states:

Children can be injured quickly and silently even in shallow water. . . .
Adults must remain at pool side and within arm’s reach of children at all times.

Safety labeling issues for childrens products need to be addressed by manufacturers, distributors and retailers as well as the ASTM committees responsible for the voluntary standards, before the government steps in and requires adequate language. In the meantime, a commitment to communicate potential hazards to parents and caregivers is the first step in substantially reducing or eliminating serious injuries.