Despite recall, tip-over worries go on

Less than a month after IKEA recalled millions of dressers, acknowledging that two toddlers died after its units crashed onto them, a longtime furniture-industry executive wrote to federal regulators.

IKEA had been "blatantly negligent," John Wilborne said, and was ignoring the safety standards others routinely follow.

20151011_inq_stip11-a
Bobby Puett , president of Diversified Testing Laboratories, watches as IKEA's MALM six-drawer dresser falls over during a test in Burlington, N.C.

"As a grandparent I am worried that this company is still selling these dangerous products," Wilborne, compliance director at Virginia-based Hooker Furniture, told Consumer Products Safety Commission officials. "These products should be deemed a substantial product hazard."

The letter, obtained by The Inquirer, reflects what has been bubbling for months behind the scenes: a concern among furniture-industry insiders that despite the deaths and the July recall, IKEA continues to sell dressers that too easily can become unstable and injure children.

On Friday, a day after a meeting in which regulators and manufacturers clashed over a proposal to strengthen the industry's voluntary stability standard, IKEA acknowledged for the first time that it doesn't believe its dressers have to comply.

In a response to questions from The Inquirer, the company would not say whether it had tested or made design changes to the two MALM dressers involved in the 2014 deaths of a 23-month-old Washington boy and 2-year-old Curren Collas of West Chester.

In recent weeks, The Inquirer bought each dresser at IKEA's Philadelphia store and had them tested by an independent lab.

Both failed even the least onerous stability test: When their unloaded drawers were extended, they craned, then crashed forward. Under the pressure of 50 pounds hung on one drawer - meant to represent the weight of a child - they toppled.

"It's so quick," said Bobby Puett of Diversified Testing Laboratories, which reviewed the dressers. "You put the weights on it. You have to have your hands up - [because] it's coming down."

A question of support

IKEA has sold at least seven million MALM dressers in the United States.

In its July 22 announcement, issued along with the safety commission, the Swedish furnishings giant said it would offer new anchoring hardware for those and 20 million other dressers and would launch a public awareness campaign on tip-overs.

IKEA, which has its U.S. headquarters in Conshohocken, stopped short of asking customers who bought the dressers to return or replace them. It promoted the initiative as "a repair program," avoiding the word recall.

(In August, the Canadian government issued its own recall of six million IKEA dressers.)

More than 75 children in the United States died in 2010 and 2011 when furniture, televisions, or appliances tipped onto them, according to federal data.

Many dresser manufacturers, including IKEA, provide restraints with their units, but advocates argue furniture should be stable on its own because consumers are unaware of the danger and often don't use the tethers.

Wilborne's Aug. 20 letter laid out in stark language the issues that insiders have been wrestling with for months, as regulators called for changes and criticized the industry for lacking the will to solve the problem.

Wilborne said it was the safety commission that had fallen short, by not ordering a full recall of the MALM dressers.

"To the general public (and some companies) it looks as if the commission did not support the voluntary standard," Wilborne wrote in the letter, sent to all of the agency's commissioners, its chairman, and the head of the standards committee.

He said the lack of action by the regulators prompted discussion within the industry about why companies should feel obligated to comply with the standard - one that adds manufacturing costs - if others can simply ignore it. Wilborne also offered solutions - suggesting statutory changes that he said would give the commission legal precedent to "uphold and support" the voluntary standards.

When contacted by The Inquirer, Wilborne declined to comment on the letter. Others in the industry have also declined to publicly discuss the question of compliance by one of its largest and most influential retailers.

But the controversy was an undercurrent on Thursday, when the committee of furniture manufacturers, advocates, and federal regulators that oversees the standard met in Conshohocken. Engineers from the safety commission proposed an even higher stability limit on dressers - one that could mean costly design changes for manufacturers.

"We're not the problem," one executive protested. "The problem is, and where the focus needs to be, is how do you get companies to [comply]?"

Making progress?

Elliot Kaye, chairman of the safety commission, on Friday declined to say whether it had tested the MALM dressers. Industry veterans say such a step would have been commonplace.

Kaye said the agency will work to make sure consumers who requested additional anchoring hardware from IKEA receive it while ensuring "IKEA is living up to its commitment to work with us on more stable furniture designs."

Then he again repeated a call for a tougher standard.

"Most important," he said, "I expect makers of children's and adult furniture to do their part by ending the finger-pointing and foot-dragging, and instead focus on ways they can make their own furniture more stable and make the performance standard stronger."

IKEA is working with federal regulators to find new designs that make its dressers more stable, according to spokeswoman Tracey Kelly.

In a written response to questions from The Inquirer, Kelly would not say whether the MALM dressers still being sold meet safety standards, or whether compliance is a goal.

She said that the company bases its design criteria on European standards, not American ones, and that IKEA dressers over a certain height are designed to be used only when anchored to the wall - which she said exempts the dressers from the stability standard.

She also said: "The safety of our customers is very important to IKEA."

 

A quick test

The three-drawer MALM dresser retails for $89.99; the six-drawer, for $169. Both come in flat boxes, ready to assemble by the consumer, like much of the furniture sold by IKEA.

Testing them takes just a few minutes, according to Puett, from Diversified Testing in Burlington, N.C. During a 41-year career in the industry, he said, he has completed countless tests of the safety standard.

On the day he tested the six-drawer MALM, Puett first tested a dresser from another manufacturer. For that model, he said, the furniture maker had increased stability by adding a metal bar across the base.

"It sure passed the test," Puett said.

As he prepared to test the MALM that afternoon, Puett said, he thought it looked "pretty sturdy" and deep enough to stay upright when challenged. Then he opened each of the drawers - and watched the furniture tumble forward. Puett said he was shocked.

"Most of the time when you pull all the drawers out, it just sits there," he said. "I very seldom get one that fails when it's just unloaded."

tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730

@TriciaNadolny