Decades of change to save children
“Ready or not, here I come!”
When kids heard that famous hide-and-seek phrase in the early and mid-20th century, several turned to a unique place to hide: the refrigerator.
An innocent-looking refrigerator—whether new and running in the kitchen or abandoned and cast off in the yard—was the perfect place wait out the seeker … until the door latch locked and turned the insulated, soundproof, airtight everyday appliance into a death trap. But thanks to decades of changes, today’s children and families have less to fear from this everyday appliance.
Refrigerators in the early decades of the 20th century operated and looked much as they do now, with one key difference: While more modern appliances use strong magnets to keep doors shut, air chilled, and food fresh, refrigerators of the past relied on a locking latch handle. Used dozens of times a day, the self-locking handle didn’t rate a second thought—that is, until tragedy struck.
Each year, several children would become entrapped in refrigerators; dozens died annually when they were discovered too late, suffocating in as quickly as 10 minutes. In just the 18 months between January 1954 and June 1956, out of 54 children known to have become entrapped, 34 died.
Before this time period, California already was moving to address the concern of refrigerator entrapment. In 1951, the state made it a misdemeanor to abandon or dump a refrigerator or similar appliance without first removing the door, hinges, or locking-latch mechanism.
However, while this state law addressed some of the refrigerator danger, it didn’t get to the ultimate source of the problem: the industry’s use of the locking latch itself.
With concerns, entrapments, and deaths continuing, the U.S. Congress passed the Refrigerator Safety Act in 1956. The legislation required companies to ensure all new refrigerators manufactured after 1958 to have mechanisms to allow the appliances to be easily opened from the inside. Companies that did not comply would be held liable and stiffly fined for infractions resulting in harm or death.
The act marked a turning point in consumer safety and started the trend toward change, but there was still much to do to make sure kids were protected.
While new mandated door mechanisms made a big difference, the ultimate safety results would not be seen for years—or even decades.
With a refrigerator’s life span running about 13 years, families would go for long periods of time without replacing their old standby with a new, safer alternative. Why pay hundreds for a brand-new refrigerator when your current one was still working fine? Even when the dangerous refrigerators were finally replaced in homes, the old ones would live on either as household back-ups or dumped in yards or junk heaps.
With unsafe refrigerators still in wide use in households as well as found around neighborhoods, and children still being harmed by those still in existence (84 deaths in 1980 alone), broadcast public service announcements and written advertisements in the decades following California and federal legislative changes helped keep kids and families aware.
The safety issue was still so concerning in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that, when the first-draft script for the blockbuster movie Back to the Future called for a time-traveling, nuclear-safe, old-fashioned refrigerator, the leading writers changed the time machine to a DeLorean to prevent young audience members from being inspired to climb in.
Thanks to safer technology, legislative changes, and public awareness, the once-looming specter of the dangerous refrigerator has largely retreated from the scene. Yet even in recent years, children in the United States and elsewhere have been trapped by old refrigerators with locking mechanisms: As recently as 2019, two young brothers in Kyrgyzstan died while playing hide and seek in an old-style refrigerator.
The Department of Consumer Affairs’ Bureau of Household Goods and Services has a long and dedicated history of helping make California homes and products safer, and their licensees are happy to help you with appliance safety and repair plus many other vital services. For more information, visit their website at bhgs.dca.ca.gov.