Apartments and multi-storey homes are about to get a little safer for children thanks to a rule change around windows in new buildings.
The Australian Building Codes Board has ruled that all windows in new homes and apartments that are more than two metres off the ground must be either fitted with window locks that stop the window being opened more than 125mm (12.5 cm), or must have reinforced screens to prevent children from falling from a height.
The changes will be included in the National Construction Code from May 2013.
The Australian Building Codes Board estimates that owners and builders will choose to fit 80 per cent of windows with locks, and the remaining 20 with reinforced screens. Its research priced window locks from $20 - $70 each, and strong screens from $130 a square metre, putting the average cost of a suitable screen at $130.Ron De Vere, a project manager with the Australian Building Codes Board, says the decision was made after wide consultation with industry, and with fire authorities across the nation.
De Vere said an economic analysis that took into account the cost of installing locks and screens versus society's cost of treating children who had fallen from windows showed that the broader cost-benefit of the changes was around zero.
However, "the board was swayed by the risk to children and the danger of children falling out of buildings", he says. "It's a bit like the pool safety issue, the child drowning ... the value of a child's life is so crucial."
Danny Cass, a professor of paediatric surgery at the Children's Hospital Westmead, has welcomed the changes saying the recognition that children could access windows and easily climb or fall out of them was a win for commonsense.
"Before, they thought a kid couldn't climb that high but ... they often pull things up to it, or beds are placed next to it," Cass says.
Just a like a pool safety fence though, children will only be protected when adults remember to lock the windows and check that the reinforced screens are in good order.
The board backed away from an initial proposal to mandate window guards for windows two stories or above in all domestic dwellings.
It also a decided against that a proposal to increase to one metre the minimum floor-to-sill height of openable windows in rooms that are four metres from the ground outside.
The minimum floor-to-sill height will effectively remain at 865mm as the current provisions require a barrier of 865mm be in place to any openable window that is more than four metres from the ground, and it is common practice to place the bottom of the window at that height, using the wall itself to create the barrier.
The floor-to-sill height requirement will remain even where a lockable or removable device or screen is in use - in case the device or screen is inadvertently unlocked or removed. However, the minimum height from ground level at which the window-to-sill or barrier rule comes into play will drop from four metres to two metres after evidence showed serious injury can happen when a child falls from just two metres.
The changes will come into effect from May 2013, a timeframe the board says will allow industry to prepare for the changes.
An average of one child a week is taken to hospital in Australia after falling from a window. According to figures from the Children's Hospital Westmead, 80 per cent of children who have fallen from a window have significant injuries, and four out of five children who fall from windows are aged under five. For information on keeping your kids safe near windows, click here.
Cass says the next challenge is making windows in existing housing and apartment stock safer for children. Cass is part of a working party on child falls at the Children's Hospital Westmead. The group will meet again this month to explore further recommendations for existing properties.