Joe Metzger suffers from a curse - the curse of the baby-proofer. If he enters any house that contains young children, he immediately sees hazards. Even when he's off the clock.
"I'm always noticing something," says Metzger, who co-owns Safer Babies, based in Media, with his wife, Jennifer.
On this day, he's working a job in Kennett Square, and he has his eagle eyes wide open. This is the digital age, and that means a whole set of new worries for parents of young children. The gaggle of gadgets seemingly necessary to 21st-century living can pose big risks to the littlest family members.
Flat-screen televisions can easily tip onto youngsters. Button batteries for remote controls can choke kids. Electrical cords can ensnare and strangle babies.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an estimated 25,300 children were treated in emergency departments because of falling televisions, furniture, and appliances between 2008 and 2010. Injuries to the under-18 set represented 58 percent of all instability-related injuries in those two years.
Of those reported incidents, 44 percent involved falling TVs.
The CPSC also has seen cases of injuries from children swallowing button batteries, whose use in the home has increased. And electrical cords, which have multiplied with each new invention, continue to pose risks.
"A lot of these injuries are preventable," Metzger said. "Of course, no [safety] product is a replacement for adult supervision. But it makes adult supervision easier."
Veronica Chavez has asked Metzger back this day, his third visit, to secure the 37-inch flat-screen TV in the finished basement, adjacent to the play area for her son, Jonas, 3½, and daughter, Siena, 1 year old and on the verge of walking.
"I needed to do this right," said Chavez. That's why she was willing to pay a professional baby-proofer to do a walk-through before the family moved here over the summer. Metzger first recommended products and then installed gates, electrical covers, and such. He came back a second time after the family moved in to check over their furniture. He returned to secure the TV and other items. The final bill: more than $2,500.
During an earlier visit, Chavez said Metzger noticed a chair and desk near a half wall on the second floor. He practically went apoplectic. She didn't get the problem until he explained that a child could climb the chair, then the desk and finally atop the wall, and fall 14 feet onto the hardwood staircase below.
Now a gate prevents access to the recessed niche.
"This is important," Chavez said. "This is my children's safety."
As Jonas poses his robot nearby, Metzger attaches a bracket to the back of the TV and then secures it to a stud in the wall to prevent the set from falling, even if a curious toddler grabs the panel and tugs. He also measures the space between the back wall and the table on which the TV sits. The distance should not exceed 4 inches. "That'll keep the child from crawling back there and getting into the cables," he said.
The International Association for Child Safety, the trade association for baby- and child-proofers, claims about 130 members. It offers certifications, even though no federal, state, or local agency requires such credentials for an individual to hang up a baby- or child-proofer shingle.
Metzger, who used to run a house-painting business, is not certified but did take a 40-hour course that the association offers when he began Safer Babies in 1999. After learning about all the errors commonly made while installing a car seat, he immediately called home and told his wife not to take the couple's young children anywhere until he got back home and could check the car seats.
"Every one of these products is for a reason," he said, as he installed a lock on a front-loading dryer. Children have climbed inside machines like this - dangerous not only because of burns if the dryer is started, but also because of suffocation in the airtight space.
Listen to a baby-proofer long enough, and you wonder how anyone ever reached adulthood before the advent of the profession, which has gained steam only in the last couple of decades.
Baby-proofers liken their profession to insurance against calamity.
"You don't expect anything to happen," said Bobbi Alpert, owner of the Baby Proofers in Cherry Hill. "But God forbid anything does."
The CPSC's log of the top five hidden home hazards - magnets, recalled products, tip-overs, windows and coverings, and pool and spa drains - lends credence to what might seem like worrywarts gone extreme.
Others note that the pace of family life, and all those gadgets, only adds to the chance of something going wrong. "It's not that they're bad parents," said Jeff Gansky, a certified child-proofer who co-owns Kidproteq, based in Phoenixville. "They get distracted for the moment."
He remembers the time he was evaluating a home and the 6-year-old pulled out the bottom drawers of his bureau and climbed up to reach something higher. It tipped. "The bed caught the edge, so the child was OK," Gansky said.
Sometimes the littlest thing can pose a threat. Consider the rubber tip of most doorstops. It can come off and is the perfect size to choke a child, he said. Baby-proofers suggest a one-piece alternative.
"Obviously, there are going to be bumps and bruises growing up," said Colleen Driscoll, executive director of the trade association based in Baltimore. "But we don't want that TV crashing down on a child when it can be secured."
Back in Kennett Square, Metzger is concerned about a five-gallon aquarium tank on a slim metal stand. Even as he looks it over, Jonas wanders over, holds onto the shelf's sides and raises himself to tiptoes to look at the small fish.
"The tank is heavy and the stand is wobbly," Metzger noted. "It's kind of like a ladder at a playground."
He anchors the stand to the bottom of the windowsill behind and bundles the cords in a plastic sleeve, then ties it to the back of a leg.
As he prepares to leave, the curse of the baby-proofer is in full view: Metzger counts the extra screws and parts from the various products he has installed this day. He's making sure he leaves nothing, as in, no hazards, behind.