IKEA recall: Don't blame the parents who didn't install the wall anchors, it's fundamentally bad design

IKEA has just issued a recall of 29 million MALM chests and dressers, which have toppled over and killed at least four children since 1989. Over on sister site MNN.com, Matt Hickman notes that the problem is easily solved:

However saddening the deaths, the recall helps to draw much-needed attention to a crucial aspect of furniture installation that doesn’t seem to be all that widely practiced in the United States: wall anchoring. None of the pieces of furniture — pieces of furniture IKEA has claimed were never meant to be freestanding — responsible for the three most recent deaths were securely affixed to a wall.

The problem is that the reason wall anchoring is not widely practiced in the United States is that if the furniture is properly designed and tested, it’s not necessary. But for the MALM it is. Matt notes:

Speaking to the New York Times, Lars Peterson, president of IKEA US, refers to wall anchoring as “an integral part of the assembly instructions.” He notes: “If you are assembling correctly, the product is actually a very safe product.”

But very few people want to make holes in their walls for the anchors, and very few people even think about the issue of it toppling over. This is not intuitive.

When you look back to earlier this year when this issue was first in the news, when the Consumers Union started complaining to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, most commenters are blaming parents for letting their kids climb on the furniture, for lack of supervision, for not reading the instructions and if this happened they have nobody to blame but themselves for being lousy parents and not following IKEA’s instructions. But let's look at the instructions, this is the entirety of the message in the IKEA assembly manual for the MALM. Tell me you wouldn't just whizz right by this step:

MALM instructions© IKEA

But the issue is far more complicated than whether people followed instructions. As my mantra goes, it’s all about design. Because this is and has been a known problem for years, and not just with IKEA furniture. That’s why there is an established (but voluntary) testing standard from ASTM, F2057 Standard Safety Specification for Chests, Door Chests, and Dressers where they describe the issue:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that there were 8100 emergency room treated injuries associated with the tipover of furniture in 1994. In addition, the CPSC received reports of about six deaths each year associated with furniture tipover. Approximately two thirds of the deaths were said to have involved items with drawers, such as dressers, bureaus, and chests of drawers. Approximately 80 % were to children under the age of five.

testing a drawer© ASTM/ how to test a drawer

The standard describes a testing procedure where a fifty pound weight is fastened to the open drawer. If the dresser topples, then it fails to meet the standard. But that is putting a lot of weight on the end of a cantilever, and the dresser has to have substantial weight and depth to resist tipping. ASTM also designed a sticker to be put on every dresser, whether it passed the tests or not.

astm warning© ASTM

IKEA made a design choice based on their market. The MALM series is shallower than dressers used to be, because people are living in smaller spaces with smaller bedrooms, and don’t want to give up so much space. They are lighter because more weight costs more money in materials, shipping and more work for the customer who has to schlep the thing home and up the stairs. They don’t have the fancy drawer interlocks that you get in file cabinets because their customers don’t want to spend the money.

IKEA knew full well that it was unstable, so they sold it with the wall anchor. But this is not intuitive, people don’t want to make holes in their walls, so they don’t do it. When I bought it for my daughter I didn’t do it. (Although she was a teenager at the time.)

In the end, this is a design decision: whether to sell something shallow and cheap or heavy and deep. It is likely that IKEA will now adopt the voluntary standard, or that the government will make it mandatory, which will be the end of MALM, and that is the way it should be.

Good design should be intuitive to use. It should be designed for safety first, not safety after you tie it to the wall. This was not good design.

Tags: Designers | Flat Pack | Furniture


treehugger slideshows