Boy's death draws attention to washing machine safety issues

Boy's death draws attention to washing machine safety issues
The lock feature of front-loading washing machines should be used by families with small children.
PHOTO: Japan News/ANN

The death of a Tokyo boy in a front-loading washing machine hints anew at the latent dangers posed by everyday products. Even with child-lock functions that keep the door sealed and prevent children from entering, there are many cases in which users fail to turn these functions on. We have reviewed some of the accident prevention solutions available.

Front-loading washers feature a door on the front of the device, perpendicular to the floor. The drum of the washing machine, positioned either horizontally or at an angle to the door, washes the clothes using a spinning motion. Front-loaders are noted for their decreased use of water in contrast to traditional top-loaders. These machines have become widespread in the United States and European countries, with sales in Japan climbing since around the year 2000.

The recent fatal accident occurred on June 8. A 7-year old boy was found in a state of cardiopulmonary arrest and confirmed dead at the hospital. The washer's door is designed not to be opened from the inside. The mother said she only learned that the washer had a lock function after the accident.

The Consumer Affairs Agency is calling on people to make use of this lock function.

A 39-year-old office worker in Tokyo said she purchased a front-loader last year. She has children aged 5 and 2. "I'm worried about them playing hide-and-seek and trying to hide in the washer. I've been diligent about keeping the door shut, but I didn't know that washers had a lock function. I'm going to read the instruction manual and put [the function] to use," she said.

The child lock works prior to operation of the machine or when it is turned off, preventing children from opening the door and getting trapped inside. It can be enabled or disabled through a long press of one of the buttons on the machine or a similar procedure. There are also washers for which the locking and unlocking process is deliberately complicated so that children cannot do it by themselves. These lock functions are available on the majority of domestic washers, but a Consumer Affairs Agency official said, "There are many cases in which users do not know of the feature or fail to use it."

Last August, following multiple cases in the United States and South Korea of children becoming trapped in washers and dying, the agency called for increased use of lock functions.

If there is no lock function available, the agency recommends using a large rubber strap to hold the door shut. The user affixes hooks to both sides of the washer and attaches the strap to them. The agency also warns that the vicinity should be cleared of step stools and other objects that children could use to climb up into the machine. Manufacturers note in the instruction manuals for these devices that "Children can become trapped inside."

According to the Consumer Affairs Agency and National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, there have been no other reports of such accidents in Japan.

"When new products hit the market, unforeseen accidents occur, so these accidents should be thoroughly investigated to prevent their recurrence," said Tatsuhiro Yamanaka, director at Ryokuen Children's Clinic in Yokohama.

"Manufacturers should explore ways of making washers safe even if they are incorrectly used. That means not just child locks, but, for example, washers for which the door can be opened from the inside."

Drowning risk in top-loaders

Accidents can also happen in top-loading washing machines. There have been cases of children, peeking into the machine from above, falling in and drowning. The Consumer Affairs Agency urges caution, saying stools and other objects should be kept out of reach of the washer so that children cannot climb up. The door should also be secured so that children cannot easily open it. There have also been several cases of infants being placed atop the washers and then falling off due to the shaking action.

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