Baby Justin Swales died in his sleep, asphyxiated in a porta cot. It was the first time Justin would be left with someone else, but Swales knew he would be well cared for by her own mother and her sister, a mother of four.
That night, Justin was bathed and fed before being put in a portable cot at his aunt's home in Craigieburn. A baby monitor was activated to pick up any sounds he might make. And, for Justin to be more comfortable, a mattress was put into the porta cot. Fifteen minutes later, Justin was dead.
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One of the children had checked on him and noticed he was blue. He was just breathing in the side wall rather than any free oxygen. That's how it came out. Most parents assume that portable cots and other nursery items are subject to vigorous mandatory safety requirements. Remarkably, that is not the case, despite calls from consumer and other groups for binding safety rules. Permanent cots and baby walkers are the only nursery items that have compulsory standards covering design, construction, labelling and safety features.
Most other equipment, such as portable cots, dummies and prams are made to voluntary standards that manufacturers and suppliers do not have to adhere to. The Infant and Nursery Products Association of Australia, which represents about 50 suppliers, consumer groups, and Standards Australia all agree the system needs to be improved. Even where mandatory standards apply, as with cots, there is no guarantee of safety. In a submission to the Productivity Commission last year, the Australian Consumers Association found that five out of 10 cots failed the mandatory safety requirements.
Coroners around the country recorded 25 deaths associated with porta cots and cots between July 1, , and January 10 this year. Victoria's coroner, Graeme Johnstone, believes the figure is likely to be an underestimate.
In his findings on Justin's death, Johnstone found the last review of the voluntary standard for portable cots was in and suggested it was time for a further assessment. Crucially, he suggested consideration should be given to making the standard for portable cots mandatory. The coroner also made recommendations about the wording and placement of warning labels on portable cots.
As a first step, he said the Department of Consumer Affairs should issue a warning to parents, family members and carers about the risks of portable cots. Johnstone's findings were released in February this year and were sent to 15 government and child safety authorities. The response will seem painfully slow, but at least the wheels are turning. Standards Australia's children's furniture committee established a working group in March to consider Johnstone's findings.
The group is expected to report back to the furniture committee this week. Most reputable Australian suppliers know better than to place unsafe products on the market and most modify cots, bassinets and other items imported from overseas to meet the voluntary standards developed by Standards Australia. But, like any industry, there are bad apples.
Under Australia's regulatory system, mandatory standards for consumer products are rare. Standards Australia, which develops and maintains about standards, relies on committees consisting of industry, consumer and expert technical representatives to determine safety specifications for various products. But updating and developing standards is an excruciatingly slow process.
Wain shakes his head in disbelief when he says that Standards Australia has been unable to come up with a voluntary standard for high chairs despite almost five years of discussion.
A new standard was developed in However, this will not be mandatory until November this year. Until then, suppliers only have to abide by the standard.
Rather than develop individual standards for each product, the new system aims to test for hazards such as entrapment and toxicity across a range of products. The concept has been embraced by Standards Australia and a month trial is about to begin. Wain sees it working alongside the current system.
John Ashes is manager of research and the test centre at the Australian Consumers Association. He believes all nursery equipment should have mandatory standards. Ashes says a weakness in Wain's new approach is that it relies on manufacturers correctly assessing risks in their own products. It's got potential, but I can see whiskers on it at this point in time.
About 10 years ago, an investigation by Monash University's Accident Research Centre found that cots had the highest mortality rate of any nursery product. Deaths were linked to design flaws, incorrect use, inappropriate modification and the absence of mandatory standards.
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While only 7 per cent of cot injuries were attributed to product failure, the centre found there was sufficient evidence to support mandatory standards for both cots and portable cots. The centre announced its recommendations in While the standard for cots was mandated the following year, portable cots were excluded.
Kathy Swales doesn't know if tougher standards would have saved Justin. But she's had a long time to think about it and believes it is ludicrous that a distinction is made between cots and portable cots.
Besides, she points out, manufacturers would "make a fortune" if everybody had to buy portable cots that complied with tougher safety codes.
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