New Code Requirements and Education Aim to Prevent Window Falls

Rich Walker
March 14, 2009
COLUMN : Industry Watch | Codes & Standards

As annual Window Safety Week–the first full week of April–rolls around, the industry highlights its focus on home safety, an important facet of window performance in addition to the usual concerns of green credentials, energy efficiency, wind and water intrusion, impact resistance and security.

The problem: Young children are naturally curious and are attracted to an open window. Even an opening of just 5 inches poses a danger to toddlers and children under the age of 10. Deaths and injuries frequently occur when kids push themselves against window screens or climb onto furniture located near to an open window.

Safe Kids Worldwide, founded in 1987 as the National Safe Kids Campaign by Children’s National Medical Center with support from Johnson & Johnson, reports that on average about 18 children ages 10 and under die annually from falls from windows. Another 4,700 children ages 14 and under require treatment each year for window fall-related injuries. Twelve child deaths and 4,000 injuries were attributed to falls from windows in 2007. Unfortunately, many more injuries are not reported.

The solution: A mixture of enforcement and education.

Codes Enforce Window Safety
To be sure, until relatively recently, there hasn’t been much to enforce. But today, there are more window safety codes aimed at protecting children in the home. For example, as far back as 1976, the City of New York adopted codes requiring window guards in apartments where children 10 years old and younger live. After nine children fell to their deaths in seven months during 1987, the code was toughened to put the burden on landlords to determine where those children lived. Criminal charges were filed against landlords and managing agents accused of failing to install or improperly installing the guards. Fines in excess of $1.4 million were imposed during the first year of the tighter code’s existence.

Other states have followed suit. As another example, in Minnesota, Layla’s Law–enacted in honor of a one-year-old toddler that fell to her death from a third story apartment window in 2007–requires all new and remodeled residential buildings to have safety screens.

Many local jurisdictions recommend the use of aftermarket guards for installation in window openings. But building officials remain concerned that unknowing or careless homeowners can defeat window guards or safety screens by removing them. Fire officials worry that improperly installed or makeshift guards can hamper emergency exit in the event of a fire.

Hence the migration of the issue into the building code arena, where reconciling the conflicting dual missions of preventing children from falling and providing an emergency exit has been on the agenda at code change hearings.

The 2006 International Building Code and the International Residential Code called for a minimum sill height of 24 inches for operable residential windows located more than 6 feet above grade. Exceptions to this provision include limiting the window opening to no more than 4 inches–not an option if the window is required to meet the emergency escape and rescue–or equipping the window with a window guard. Given the opinion that such a requirement would compromise egress for fire safety, many state jurisdictions who otherwise adopted the 2006 I-codes elected not to include the sill height minimum.

So, after further deliberations during the 2008 code change hearings, a new 2009 IRC provision took effect January 1. That provision provides for exception to the 24 inch minimum sill height requirement for windows that are equipped with window opening limiting devices that restrict the initial opening of the window to no more than 4 inches, but which, when released, permit the window to open further. Borrowing from several of the provisions of ASTM F 2090, Standard Specification for Window Fall Prevention Devices with Emergency Escape (Egress) Release Mechanisms, the window opening limiting device is to adhere to the following:

  • Release with no more than 15 pounds force
  • Be operable in all kinds of weather
  • Be clearly identified for use
  • Not reduce the minimum net clear opening below that required for an emergency escape and rescue window, if the window is required to meet those size limits

Public Education
All the codes and penalties in the world can’t take the place of responsible and vigilant parents, however. And that is the essential purpose of Window Safety Week–to heighten the awareness of what caregivers should do to help keep their home and family safer from the risk of accidental falls, especially as windows are opened in the mild springtime weather to provide ventilation.

Last year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission added its weight to the effort, warning caregivers to take precautions. State departments of health usually issue their own warnings around this time of year as well.

The fenestration industry’s contribution to the cause, Window Safety Week and the educational tools it promotes, is administered by the Window Safety Task Force comprised of members representing the American Architectural Manufacturers Association, the Window and Door Manufacturers Association, the Screen Manufacturers Association, National Association of Home Builders, the National Fire Protection Association and other organizations, in conjunction with the National Safety Council.

The task force emphasizes the life-saving role doors and windows play as the primary exits and secondary means of escape in the event of a fire. The group also reminds caregivers that screens are designed to keep insect pests out, rather than holding a child's weight. In addition, the coalition reminds consumers to avoid placing furniture under windows to prevent potential climbing and falling hazards or hinder a quick escape in the event of a fire.

In addition to these, Window Safety Week disseminates the following window safety tips:

  • Determine your family's fire emergency escape plan and practice it. Remember that children may have to rely on a window to escape in a fire. Help them learn to safely use a window under these circumstances.
  • When performing repairs, take care to make sure that your windows are not painted or nailed shut. You must be able to open them to escape in an emergency.
  • Keep your windows closed and locked when children are around. When opening windows for ventilation, open windows that a child cannot reach, or in the case of a double-hung window, open the top sash only.
  • Set and enforce rules about keeping children's play away from windows or patio doors.
  • If window guards or window fall prevention devices are being considered, be aware that the window guards must have a release mechanism so that they can be opened for escape in a fire emergency. Consult your local fire department or building code official to determine proper window guard placement.
  • Those windows with window guards, security bars, grilles or grates are useless in an emergency if the devices on them do not have a functioning release mechanism.
  • Do not install window air conditioners in windows that may be needed for escape or rescue in an emergency. Always be sure that there is at least one window in each sleeping and living area that meets escape and rescue requirements.
  • Shrubs and soft edging like wood chips or grass beneath windows may lessen the impact if a fall does occur.

Two printed resources on the topic of window safety are available free of charge from the task force. The "Keeping the Promise of Safety" brochure provides helpful window safety tips. Individual sample brochures may be downloaded from the National Safety Council Web site. Larger quantities (minimum of 100) may be ordered at no cost from NSC Customer Service at 800/621-7619 and asking for product number 00006-6215.

The Window Safety Information Kit, which includes the "Keeping the Promise of Safety” brochure, as well as window safety tip sheets, window safety checklist, window safety press release and window safety activity and coloring book, is also available in quantity through NSC (product number 00006-6210).

For more information on fire egress, check out the NFPA’s Web site at www.nfpa.org. Information on planning a home fire drill, as well as other information on addressing home security and fire issues involving children is available for download.  

Manufacturers and builders may want to consider using some of the materials available to participate in the educational effort. A demonstrated educational effort to prevent misuse of products could help reduce the risk of both child falls and unnecessary litigation.
 

Rich Walker is president and CEO of the American Architectural Manufacturers Association, 847/303-5664, rwalker@aamanet.org.