The terrible fall of a six-year-old girl who tumbled five metres onto concrete in Sydney’s south on the weekend underscores the importance of a critical area in building and construction as well and in the maintenance of residential dwellings: how to safeguard windows and prevent child falls.
The girl, who fell through a flyscreen, suffered facial injuries and a fractured arm and had to be taken to Randwick Children’s Hospital.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. In February, a five-year-old boy was left in critical condition after falling 10 metres from a window in Sydney’s west.
Indeed, in New South Wales alone, Australian Medical Association (AMA) Councillor Associate Professor Brian Owler says around 50 children are admitted to hospital after falling from windows and balconies each year, with head and brain injuries being the most common form of damage.
Owler says the vast majority of parents makes genuine attempts to provide safe environments for their children but adds that sometimes this isn’t enough.
“Children are inquisitive, resourceful and unpredictable,” Owler says. “It takes moments for them to pull a chair over to a window.”
Owler notes that houses and apartments need to be designed and constructed in a way which prevents accidents from happening. Toward this goal, he says, progress is being made courtesy of a successful modification to the National Construction Code from May 2013, which calls for a safety requirement for new homes that mandates devices restricting window openings to 100 millimetres where necessary.
Owler says, however, that more needs to be done about existing buildings. Most importantly, action should be taken on recommendations from a report from the Children’s Hospital at Westmead that all windows in residential dwellings from the first floor up, or more than three metres above the ground, be required to have safety features to prevent falls.
This would include safety devices so that openings can be limited or locked, where necessary, to 100 millimetres – similar to the soon-to-be-introduced requirement for new homes.
Owler says that in New South Wales, enacting such requirements may require amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 and the Strata Schemes Management Act 1996, and that landlords and owners’ corporations may face higher levels of responsibility as a result.
In addition, the government could set the example by installing window safety devices in the first floor and above in public housing, he says.
Owler says that in New York, measures such as these resulted in a 96 per cent reduction in hospital admissions due to falls from windows.
“We cannot afford to wait 20 years for the effects of the new building code to reduce the incidence of these preventable injuries and deaths,” Owler wrote in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald. “We need to focus on existing dwellings; these are the ones that are dangerous right now.”
Of course, none of this is to play down the role of parents, who need to be aware that flyscreens offer no protection against the weight of a toddler and must also be aware of the importance of removing climbable objects.
Owler stresses, however, that debate surrounding parental responsibility is of little help to injured children, and that action must be taken immediately to safeguard dwellings.
“Arguments about parental responsibility do not help or comfort children injured after falling from windows or balconies,” he says. “As winter approaches the incidence of these injuries will go down. But I don’t want to wait until next summer when the windows open again and children start dying before we act. Let’s support parents and protect our children now.”