In 2011-12, 39 children were hospitalised as a result of window falls. The most decisive factor in the seriousness of injuries sustained is the surface on which a child lands. If they fall out of a house window, they are likely to land in a garden bed or on grass; if they fall out of an apartment window, they are most likely to land on concrete.
Many families would prefer to live in freestanding housing. As a result, Sydney’s strata stock, both old and new, is not built with children in mind. Most apartments are one or two bedrooms and lack an outdoor play space. Increasing numbers of children live in apartments because their parents want to live closer to work and city amenities, or because they have no financial alternative. The majority of children who live in Sydney apartments are from recent migrant families. These children are likely to be living in rented accommodation and their parents are not permitted to attach locks or limiting devices to windows without consent from the landlord. Often children are required to play in small bedrooms with furniture under windows. Very young children are naturally inquisitive and incapable of judging risks. They climb onto window sills and lean on flyscreens, which are not designed to bear their weight. This is how many children come to fall metres onto concrete below.
When this issue has been raised in the media in the past, I have been stunned by the level of vitriol in comments on articles. What people don’t realise is that every minute of every day we are all protected by the law in relation to the buildings in which we live and work. Sill and balustrade heights are designed to prevent adults toppling over them if they trip. The so-called “nanny state” legislates to protect all adults in the inevitable event of accident.
Children have accidents at a greater rate than adults because of their developmental capacity and the fact that no parent can watch a child all the time. If we could, we would never bother to child-proof our homes.
Strata windows are not the property of parents; they are invariably common property, which individuals usually cannot alter without consent. The strata legislation already imposes statutory obligation on owners’ corporations to maintain and repair common property. Owners’ corporations, which do not have limited liability, may be legally liable if someone sustains a foreseeable injury on common property. Owners’ corporations have to fix lifts, roofs, car parks, pools, stairwells, gyms and any other facilities or equipment in the building. In this context, requiring owners’ corporations to fit windows with locking or limiting devices so they can be secured to an opening less than a baby’s head is a minor imposition.
Reforms such as compulsory child restraints and pool fencing have often been resisted on the grounds that they are too expensive or a public intrusion into private life. But resistance only produces the loss of more lives. By pushing this reform ahead, the government has made a laudable move that will save innumerable children and families from the trauma caused by a fall from a window.
As Westmead Children’s Hospital professor of paediatric surgery Danny Cass says: “10x10x10”: it takes 10 minutes and costs $10 to secure a window to an opening of less than 10 centimetres. Not much to ask to save a child’s life.
Cathy Sherry is a lecturer in the University of NSW’s Faculty of Law and a member of the Working Party for the Prevention of Children Falling from Residential Buildings.
This opinion piece first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
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