Unlocked windows in high rise buildings are a threat to unsupervised children who often play around them and meet with fatal falls. This photograph was taken under adult supervision. Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/XPRESS

Dubai: If you're living in a high-rise and you have kids around you, it's time for a reality check. Tuesday's tragic fall of a five-year-old boy and his mother from the window of their eighth floor apartment in Jumeirah Lake Towers is a grim reminder of the lurking dangers of residing in a tower and the dire need to keep children safe.

The shocking spurt of fatal falls involving children in recent months makes a mockery of the glitzy glass facades and stunning sea views that fetch huge premiums for tall buildings in the UAE. It is a wake-up call for parents who believe that children can come to no harm in the safety of their own homes. A 16-year-old slipping from a ladder while taking aerial pictures from a 21st floor Sharjah flat; a home-alone four-year-old plunging from an eighth floor balcony in Ajman; an 18-month-old Pakistani infant toppling over a balcony chair in Dubai; a 13-year-old girl tumbling from an 11th floor window while fixing a curtain in Abu Dhabi — the list of high-rise child fatalities is long.

Yet there is little awareness about how such accidents can be avoided. "The bottom line is that most apartments are not secure. Safety locks don't exist in most windows and balcony doors. Even where windows cannot be opened completely, they are wide enough for a child to get through," said Duri Arbab, a baby proofing expert in Dubai. 

Arbab, who has set up DuMa Safe, a ‘first-of-its-kind' child proofing company in the Middle East, said besides sliding doors and windows, other common danger zones in homes include wide railing openings on balconies or along a staircase, kitchen stoves and ovens without guards, bathtubs without handles, toilets without locks, protruding skirting in the walls and sharp edges of furniture — all of which can be hazardous for children.

"Young children can also strangle in the loop of pull cords and chains that operate window coverings. They can wrap curtain cords around their necks. To avoid strangulation and entanglement, these cords should be secured and kept out of their reach. Beds, cots and furniture should also be moved away from window covering cords," said Moe Nilforoushan, CEO of Couture, an interiors firm.

Besides these common dangers, there are other factors that need to be given priority in high rises. Physician Masaaki Oda in his book The Danger of Raising Children in High-Rise Condominiums noted that kids who grow up in tall buildings fail to acquire a normal fear of heights. Toddlers develop depth perception based on their own physical circumstances and living high above the ground can distort that perception.

The common playground slide, for example, was designed to act on a child's fear of heights by letting the child succumb to gravity gradually. Fear of heights is natural, but it is not entirely instinctive. Oda carried out experiments with children raised in high-rise environments and found that they were much more fearless of high places than those children who were raised closer to the ground.

This kind of vertical existence also changes the traditional idea of "going outside to play," even in cities. The hallways and elevators that connect high-rise apartments to terra firma exert their own intimidating force.

According to Arbab, the problem is compounded when children are left on their own. "Never underestimate children. They are cleverer than we think." The issue of home-alone children is widely debated as expatriate residents, especially those who are working, struggle to cope without support systems they enjoy back home. "Not all of us can afford to keep nannies and even if they are around, they have so many chores to do that there is no guarantee they will watch over the child all day along," said Chitra D., an Indian mother who gave up a realty job to look after her two-year old daughter.

Elaine Stannard, mother of two and founder of Mumcierge, a support group for mothers in Dubai, said she was from the UK where clear legal guidelines make people aware of child safety. "Back home, if a child under 12 is left alone, the parents can be prosecuted under the law, which holds a jail term of up to 10 years if found guilty."

Last August, the criminal court in Abu Dhabi charged the mother of a three-year-old boy and an Indonesian maid of negligence after the boy had a fatal fall from a 13th-floor window. But there is little awareness about the legal ramifications of parental oversight or negligence in the UAE.

According to one resident, it would help if building managements of high rises give out a list of do's and don'ts to the occupants. "Many of us take the safety of our homes for granted but there could be so many disasters waiting to happen." Few like Stannard make it a point to baby proof their homes. Living in an 11th floor apartment in Dubai, she said she had contacted the building management to secure locks on the sliding windows. But when that could not be done, wooden bars were installed to prevent the windows from sliding.

"We also have a sliding door for our balcony, which my four-year-old could easily open before if he wanted to," she said. However, it now has a lock whose key she always carries, she added.

Alert residents like her also go in for stair gates, edge guards for the steps, shields to cover wide openings, extensions for balcony walls and guards or locks for kitchens and bathrooms.

Arbab said building managements should be more co-operative in getting these safeguards installed as residents often rue lack of "permission". Also, there is a mistaken belief among people living in rented apartments that these measures can be expensive and wasteful because they tend to move homes. But the cost could be negligible — a window lock could come for as less as Dh20 — compared to the heavy price to be paid if something goes wrong.

How to Keep Your Windows and Balconies Safe

Windows

  • Ensure they cannot be opened more than 9cm-10cm by fitting a guard. Secure it with a lock right on top
  • Remember that nets and fly-screens are meant to keep insects out, but are not strong enough to keep children in
  • Remove all furniture like stools, beds, chairs etc. from near the windows so that the child cannot climb on them
  • Do not leave the child alone when he is young. Educate him about the dangers of being near a window when he gets older

Did you know?

  • Kids tend to be top heavy. Since their centre of gravity is up near their chest, they are at an increased risk of losing balance and toppling if they lean out a window

Fact file

Balconies

  • Secure balcony doors with locks
  • Ensure balcony railings are high enough by getting extensions, shields or mesh (minimum 1.3m)
  • Keep away objects like pots and outdoor furniture that a child can use to stand or climb on
  • Lightweight furniture should be avoided as children can drag it to the edge
  • Cover gaps in the railings