Household safety: child study highlights areas for improvement

Evidence from the University of Auckland’s Growing Up in New Zealand study of child development links rental housing to a reduced number of safety features in the homes of young children.

The research, published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, is based on data collected from more than 6,000 families participating in this contemporary longitudinal cohort study.

In face-to-face interviews conducted when the children were two years old (2011-2012), mothers were asked about features of their homes that prevent injuries to their children. These included storing poisonous substances safely, knowing what to do if a child accidentally ate or drank something harmful, storing matches and cigarette lighters out of reach, having working smoke alarms, having locked doors or gates at stairs, having hot water set at a temperature safe for children, having fully fenced driveways and play areas, and covering electrical outlets located within the children’s reach.

Lead researcher Dr. Sarah Berry says that New Zealand has a poor record for children being injured from falls, scalds and poisonings.

“These injuries often have long-lasting impacts on children and their families. The burden is greatest among children living in more deprived households and so injuries contribute to the inequitable outcomes these children experience.

“In New Zealand, the home is the most common location for child injuries in the preschool years, so measures focusing on improving household safety are an important place to start if we are to reduce the rate of these injuries.”

The study showed that across the cohort there were, on average, six of the nine measured safety features present in each child’s household. Fewer than five percent reported having all nine safety features.

Overall, families living in private rental homes reported fewer household safety features than families who owned their own home. Families living in a state-owned rental home reported more household safety features.

Household safety features were also less likely to be present in the homes of children who had moved house at least once since birth compared with those who had not moved at all.

There was no association between household socioeconomic status and the number of safety features present in homes, over and above that seen in relation to housing tenure.

“Private rental homes were significantly associated with fewer safety features,” says Dr Berry. “In particular, fewer of these homes had working smoke alarms, fenced driveways or fenced play areas.

“This suggests that there is an opportunity to protect vulnerable young children by developing new policies aimed at improvements to safety features present in private rental accommodation. Such opportunities might include legislative reform, standardised assessment of houses, landlord education and tenant advocacy.”

“We were heartened to see the recent review of the New Zealand Residential Tenancies Act (Residential Tenancies [smoke alarms and insulation] regulations 2016) that now ensures working smoke alarms will be present in all rental homes. This policy change followed an earlier release of household safety findings from the Growing Up in New Zealand study,” says Dr Berry.

At the time of this data collection around 40 percent of the Growing Up in New Zealand cohort children were living in private rental accommodation. The cohort is broadly generalizable to the current New Zealand population.

Berry S, Atatoa Carr P, Kool B, Mohal J, Morton S, Grant C. (2017) Housing tenure as a focus for reducing inequalities in the home safety environment: evidence from Growing Up in New Zealand Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health online doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12695

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