HIGH POINT, N.C. - Dressers that meet the furniture industry's voluntary safety standards still pose a risk of crashing onto children, and efforts by manufacturers to adopt tougher measures have been sluggish and ineffective, a top federal regulator says.
Speaking at a meeting on the growing threat of furniture and television tip-overs, Marietta Robinson of the Consumer Product Safety Commission said the current industry standard offers only "minimal stability" for dressers. Some large manufacturers, she said, are failing to meet even that low standard.
"I can't tell you how frustrating that is," Robinson said at Tuesday's meeting, held in an city known as the furniture capital of the world. "And young kids just keep dying."
Her comments followed a recall last month of 27 million dressers by the commission and Ikea after two children, one of them Curren Collas, 2, of West Chester, died when Ikea dressers toppled onto them.
More than 38,000 people are injured by furniture and television tip-overs each year, according to emergency room admission data. And 49 children died in such accidents in 2011, the last year for which reliable data are available. Some advocates partly blame the surge in deaths and injuries on consumers upgrading to flat-screen televisions and placing their old sets on furniture not intended to carry that weight.
The furniture and television industries have worked separately to address the problem of tip-overs, but their representatives had never before met to discuss the threat.
The gathering drew about 70 people, including representatives from furniture manufacturers and the consumer electronics industry, safety advocates, federal engineers, and others. It was hosted by furniture giant Samson Holding Ltd. and organized by the American Home Furnishings Alliance.
While the two industries did identify ways to work together, most of Tuesday's discussion centered on improving the furniture standard.
In addition to its announcement last month, Ikea launched an awareness campaign and agreed to send customers free kits to anchor their dressers. Many manufacturers, including Ikea, already include such tip-over restraints with products, but advocates, regulators, and even furniture makers said it was well known that most consumers do not install them.
Federal safety commission officials have used the Ikea action as an opportunity to renew and heighten their calls for manufacturers to make furniture more stable on its own.
Robinson, a longtime trial lawyer who joined the commission in 2013, said manufacturers must anticipate that customers will continue to place old televisions on unsuitable furniture, and asked the group to consider that when updating the industry's voluntary stability standard.
"Furniture needs to be safe - period," she said. "There are too many everyday scenarios that every one of us in this room can come up with that lead to a child being seriously injured or killed, even if the furniture meets the standard that you have now."
Robinson said she was shocked to learn that "large players" in the furniture industry say they need not comply with the standard because it is voluntary, and argue that it should not apply when customers "misuse" products by failing to install restraints.
"I can tell you, without naming any names, lawyers are making that argument to us," she said.
Bill Perdue, vice president of regulatory affairs at the American Home Furnishings Alliance and chairman of the committee that crafts the industry standard, said addressing that would be the first priority when the committee meets in October.
Perdue defended the current safety standard, which says that a dresser should not tip if a drawer is extended and a 50-pound weight, simulating the weight of a child, is added. "We believe this is a good test," he said.
He and other attendees brainstormed a long list of potential improvements Tuesday.
Among the changes considered was whether safety-standard tests should simulate a dresser with a television placed on it; whether the weight used in the stability test should be heavier than 50 pounds; and whether manufacturers can devise wall anchors to be installed without tools, so more consumers use them.
Another idea was for the alliance to create a certification program for furniture that meets the stability standard, as shown by a third-party test.
The last revision to the standard was published in 2014, after several years of wrangling and delays on the committee.
John Massale, a Consumer Product Safety Commission engineer who sits on the committee, asked the group to aim for the next revision to be adopted within two years.