Dangers lurk in high rises

Carolyn Boyd January 24, 2012

Kids and apartments don't mix. At least that's what the mantra says. It's a statement that often emerges whenever the issue of families living in flats is brought up.

It's heavy in judgement, dripping with notions of Australia being a land of the great sprawling suburb, filled to the brim with smiling, freckled-face kids doing cartwheels on the grass and playing cricket in the backyard.

But fast forward to 2012 and the reality is many more families live in apartments. Some do it by choice, others by economic necessity. With the median house price across Australia at more than $530,000, it's not hard to see just how many families find themselves in higher density dwellings.

That's why my heart sinks every time I hear of a child who has fallen through a flyscreen from an apartment or double-storey home. Some are seriously injured, sadly others have died.

It is becoming a more common event, as more families live in apartments or spend larger chunks of time in them visiting family and friends.

Fairfax journalist Kelsey Munro has written about the issue of balcony safety and one family's fight to have safety nets installed on their inner-city high-rise apartment.

Many readers point out that balconies are inherently dangerous places and that children should be supervised at all times, or that the balcony door should be locked. They have a point, to a point.

But anyone with young children knows how challenging it is to supervise them 24/7. Often accidents happen to one toddler while mum or dad is busy nappy changing, feeding or carrying out the equivalent on UN peace negotiations with another.

That's why parents often take extra measures of safety, and exactly why we install pool fences and school traffic zones.

Balconies are definitely a safety issue and no doubt the battle over how to make them safer hasn't finished yet. But at least with balconies, people know they are dangerous.

Windows, on the other hand, are a silent risk – as many people mistakenly assume that if a flyscreen is fitted, children are "contained".

It's not just an issue in Australia – see this story from the US where despite tough building codes in New York – there are thousands of falls across the rest of country, where legislation is lacking.

It's about time we all took some responsibility for some of the most vulnerable people in our society – our children. I mean "our" in the collective sense.

Obviously parents have to be responsible for their own kids and if they live in an apartment, or a double-storey house, they need to try to be extra vigilant with their littlies.

But people designing and building the properties should ensure window safety is built in from the outset, and that may mean going beyond their legal requirements.

Landlords should also foot the bill for making windows safe for children before properties with windows on a second floor or above are rented out – as happens in New York.

Parents living in homes also have a responsibility to inspect their windows and balconies and, where possible, make them safer by fitting child-proof locks to windows and balcony doors so they can be fixed open at no more than 10 centimetres.

Parents need to remove all potential climbing aids, including furniture, pots and toys.

The measures required are not costly, as this fact sheet from The Children's Hospital at Westmead shows.

A second layer of safety could be added through installing stronger stainless steel "invisible" mesh that has been specifically designed to block children and pets from falling through a window that has accidentally been left open.

I saw the issue of window and balcony safety firsthand over the summer holidays when we house-sat a newish double-storey townhouse.

Two of the bedroom windows couldn't be locked shut because their latches didn't align. And there was no means of locking them into just a small opening either. The Children's Hospital at Westmead recommends in upper-level rooms where children are, that windows  be locked shut or to an opening of no more than 10 centimetres so little kids can't squeeze through.

The upstairs balcony had lightweight furniture and plenty of large pot plants. Given I have two kids under five it made sense to lock the balcony door to keep them off it, but when you did that the house would turn into a sweat box as that was the only door that allowed cross-ventilation, and there were no ceiling fans or air-con to give it a boost.

It was a lovely looking townhouse, in a nice seaside location in what would many regard as a decent development. Except its design was not child friendly. Sadly it would have only required a few basic adjustments by the builder to make it so.

Calling for properties to be made safer isn't making Australia a nanny state. It's just common sense.

Have you had experience with kids and apartment windows? What do you think needs to be done?

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