The Stories Behind 6 Safety Precautions


Safety precautions such as childproof caps and doors that open outward are so commonplace today that we rarely give them a second thought "“ they're just facts of life. Likewise, a lot of objects we come into contact with daily have important safety devices installed that most consumers don't even notice.

1. Why Aspirin Bottles Are so Hard to Open

Medications come in an array of shapes and sizes "“ pretty purple capsules, pink pills shaped like tiny home plates, etc. This variety helps visually impaired folks distinguish one prescription from another, and also aids caregivers who regularly administer handfuls of the same pills to patients. However, that same rainbow of colors is also a tantalizing temptation to toddlers, and emergency rooms of the 1950s and 60s had a steady influx of tiny patients who'd had themselves a little poison party.

Any parent knows that no matter how high out of reach you store medications, any child with even the most limited mobility can manage that Everest-like climb up to the cupboard and gobble down a bottle of delicious orange-flavored baby aspirin in the blink of an eye. Canadian pediatrician Henri Breault experimented with several types of child-resistant caps and in 1967 he patented what he felt was the best design, the "palm and turn." The province of Ontario was the first to adapt the new cap on all medications, and just one year later pediatric poisoning cases had dropped an amazing 91 percent. The Poison Prevention Packaging Act was adopted in the United States in 1970, and took effect in 1972; the first aspirin bottles with the new caps debuted in August that year.

2. Why Refrigerators Are so Easy to Close

Ever notice how you can open your refrigerator with just a slight tug of a few fingers when your hands are full, and you can likewise nudge it tightly shut with a bump of your hip? That ease of opening is thanks to a magnetic door seal, which became federally mandated equipment in 1956 on all U.S. refrigerators manufactured after 1958. Old-school refrigerators came equipped with a mechanical latch which made it impossible to open the door from the inside.

We usually don't have to worry about being able to open a refrigerator from the inside "“ that is, until it has been retired and tossed to the curb or stored in the garage. Empty refrigerators (and chest freezers), it turns out, are a favorite hiding place for children. Many games of hide-and-seek turned deadly over the years when a kid got trapped inside an abandoned fridge and suffocated. The incident of child deaths actually increased for several years after the safer models hit the market, mainly because more of the old units were being discarded. Various laws were eventually enacted that required consumers to either remove the door (or otherwise prevent it from closing) on all discarded refrigerators and freezers.

3. Making Laundry Safe for Children

The last U.S.-manufactured wringer washer rolled out of Speed Queen's Wisconsin plant in 1990. Such a machine seems positively antiquated by today's standards, but when Maytag introduced the first electric wringer in 1911, it was such an immense improvement over the labor-intensive hand-powered version that sales went through the roof. Even after automatic spin-dry washing machines hit the market, many women stuck with their wringer models. However, with that revolutionary electric wringer (appropriately called a "mangle" in the U.K.) came a brand new medical term: wringer arm. Not only fingers, hands and arms were getting caught in the rollers, but also hair and loose clothing. And the majority of injuries (and, in some cases, deaths) weren't sustained by housewives but by curious children who couldn't resist taking a closer look and perhaps poking a finger into those spinning rollers. In 1968 Underwriters Laboratory refused to certify any wringer washers that weren't equipped with an "instinctive release switch," a device which automatically shut the machine off when the rollers met a force of 20 pounds or more.

4. Opening Doors

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5. Keeping Babies Fire-Free

When it comes to house fires, infants have always been more susceptible to flames than adults for several reasons. First of all, past a certain age, babies are very sound sleepers. Various studies have shown that not even the shrill beeping of a smoke alarm will awaken a child four years old and under while in the deepest stages of slumber. Secondly, the outer layer of skin, or epidermis, of babies is quite thin and is more easily traumatized by intense heat and flames than adult flesh. So in the late 1960s the Consumer Products Safety Commission mandated that children's sleepwear should be treated with flame-retardant chemicals. The agency certainly had good intentions, but by 1977 it had been determined that most of the materials used to make kids' PJs fireproof were carcinogenic. Many legal battles followed, with manufacturers demanding a definition of "sleepwear" (Were diapers and underwear considered "sleepwear"?) and eventually an exhaustive series of guidelines were established based on the age and weight of the child. Polyester proved to be "self-extinguishing" and any chemically inserted flame retardants during the manufacturing process became part of the molecular composition of the fabric.

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Another "must" in children's sleepwear is that it be snug-fitting with no loose ribbons or other decorations. When the jammies fit close to the skin, they allow for less oxygen between the body and the cloth, so even if ignited there is no air to feed the flames.

6. The Problem With Hair Dryers

The problem with hair dryers is that they operate with electricity, and most people use them in the bathroom, which, between the basin and the tub, is a hotbed of water outlets. Apart from the foolish few who tried to save a few minutes in the morning by drying their hair while still in the bath, lots of folks left their blow dryers plugged in and hanging precariously close to the bathtub, and sadly many a child managed to knock the appliance into the water while they were bathing. As of January 1, 1991, all hair dryers manufactured in the U.S. come equipped with a feature that protects against electrocution whether the unit is in the "on" or "off" position. However, there are still hundreds of thousands of older dryers still in use, so much like the wringer washers and old-school freezer chests, consumers are urged to keep an eagle eye out if they have both children and these devices in their homes.

Feel free to share your childhood "deathtraps" "“ did your parents own a car without seatbelts? Do you remember playing with a dry cleaning bag? Or was there some safety innovation that saved you or a loved one?