It happened so suddenly. Sara Waters was shredding some paper in her southern California home. Her 22-month-old son Aaron was in the room. “I turn around for just a few seconds to grab more paper,” she says, “and when I turned back around the paper shredder stopped, and his fingers were inside the feeder opening where the paper goes in.”
Sara hit the power switch and pulled her son’s fingers out of the machine. “It shredded two of his fingers,” she says. Sara recalls the October 2004 incident as if it were yesterday. “It was just really awful. All you can see is just flesh, torn flesh, and blood everywhere.” Aaron was incredibly lucky. Doctors were able to rebuild the tips of his fingers.
Sara tells me she never imagined that the opening of a paper shredder would be big enough for a child’s fingers to fit through. But it is.
Not an isolated case
Paper shredders are in millions of American homes today. And with the growing threat of identity theft, shredder sales are soaring — up 35 percent over the past five years. They don't seem all that dangerous, but if there is a toddler in the house a paper shredder can be a real hazard.
Between January 2000 and September 2005, the Consumer Product Safety Commission received 50 reports of finger injuries — including lacerations and amputations — from home paper shredders. The majority of those injured were children under the age of 5.
“The vast majority of the units out there are dangerous to children,” says Dr. George Foltin, associate professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at New York University School of Medicine.
In a study published this year in Pediatrics magazine, Foltin reported that half the accidents happened “when the parent was with the child showing them how to use the paper shredder.” The child is holding the paper and their fingers get pulled into the shredder. “They either don’t recognize to let go or it happens so quickly that they don’t have time to let go,” Foltin explains.
In Dallas, 5-year-old Jared Lawson was feeding paper into the shredder as his mother looked on. Lora Lawson says Jared had been taught how to use it. On this day, in March 2004, the machine hesitated and then started up again. Jared’s hand was pulled along with the paper into the blades.
“The third and fourth fingers on his left hand were shredded,” she recalls. “They came out looking like ground meat.”
Lawson stopped the shredder, but was unable to get her son’s fingers out. He was airlifted to the hospital with the top of the machine still attached to his hand. The boy lost part of one finger.
"Kids and shredders don't mix," says Patty Davis of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. When they do, the results can be tragic. “A shredder is not a toy and not something that a child should ever operate."
The CPSC says a child should never be allowed to use a shredder or be in the room when you are using it. “Kids tend to mimic adults,” Davis says, “so they will try to do this.”
Sara Waters agrees. “It’s just very enticing to little kids,” she says. “They hear the noise, and you can tell them no, but they’re curious.” Lora Lawson advises other parents to realize the danger. “Kids should not even touch them,” she warns.
To play it safe, keep the shredder unplugged or in a place where a child cannot get to it. This is also important if you have pets. At least five cases have been documented in which a dog was licking an automatic-feed shredder and got its tongue sucked into the machine.
Safer machines on the way
The industry is aware of the problem and design changes are being made. The openings — where the paper or fingers can go in — are getting smaller and more rigid, to reduce the chance of an accident.
Underwriters Laboratories has developed new requirements for shredders carrying the UL label. They must have an on/off switch and better safety warnings. Manufacturers also have to pass a test to show that little fingers cannot fit into the opening or be pulled into the blades. The new standards are expected to be in place by the summer of 2007. Right now units with the UL sticker meet current standards, not the future standards.
In the meantime, you may be able to find a few shredders that have been designed to reduce the chance of child-related injuries. Some Fellowes and GBC models have a safety switch. I even spotted a new Staples brand shredder that has a child-resistant on/off switch. You have to push down and slide the switch to turn it on.
Patty Davis, with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, says the new UL standard “will go a long way toward preventing these needless injuries to children. We hope people will phase out the old machines and buy new ones.”