Bedrails pose deadly hazard to frail, elderly, impaired

In the past decade, 155 people have died because of injuries caused by the safety devices.

STATESMAN WASHINGTON BUREAUOctober 8, 2013 

For years before and after Marshall’s death, thousands of frail, confused or elderly people have been injured and hundreds killed after becoming trapped in safety rails installed to keep them from falling out of bed. States with fatalities are Washington, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Texas.

“The underlying belief on the part of everyone was you purchase one of these things and it makes you safer,” Gloria Black said. “Well, now I’ve learned otherwise.”

News accounts of such tragedies are infrequent, but a review of articles, court records and incident reports filed with federal or state agencies reveal some victims’ names and the disturbingly similar circumstances of their deaths:

Æ Hospice patient Harry Griph Sr., 75, died in 2004 with his neck trapped between a mattress and a bedrail at an assisted living facility in Brookfield, Wis.

Æ Mary Campbell, 82, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was found suffocated to death, her neck pinned between a bedrail and a mattress in a Kansas City, Mo., nursing home in 1996.

Æ Ouida Ethridge was 86 in 2009 when she asphyxiated, her head wedged between the side rails and air mattress on her bed at a rehabilitation center in Friendswood, Texas.

Æ In 2011, a nurse at a hospital in Allentown, Pa., found 88-year-old Donald Campbell strangled in bed, with his right shoulder and upper body between the mattress and the side rail. Records show he had been in a “confused state.”

Æ Nanette Galbraith, an 84-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, died last year after her head became stuck between her hospital bed and a side rail at an adult care home in Wilmington, N.C.

The federal government has long known about the dangers of bedrails but has done little to enforce safety requirements.

“That is amazing to me that you can have a product sold in a medical supply store and no one has verified is this safe,” said Black, who now campaigns for mandatory safety standards for bedrails — or preferably an outright ban.

Nationwide, nearly 37,000 people visited hospital emergency rooms and 155 people died because of injuries caused by adult portable bedrails between 2003 and 2012, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most of the accidents occurred in private homes, nursing homes or assisted living facilities. More than 80 percent of the victims were over age 60.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received 901 reports of patients who became trapped, entangled or strangled in hospital bedrails since 1985, including 531 fatalities. Most were frail or mentally impaired.

“It’s a horrible, tragic, painful, scary way to die, and it’s just so unnecessary,” said Steve Levin, a Chicago attorney who represents residents of long-term care facilities. Levin believes the number of fatal incidents and near-misses involving adult bedrails is underreported.

Elderly victims might not have any family, or even if they do, their relatives may not know where to report the incident. And sometimes bedrail accidents are covered up by care facilities fearful of lawsuits or citations, he said.

In one case Levin worked on, a nursing home hid a bed and mattress after a patient strangled in the rails.

“If an elderly resident dies in bed it would not be difficult for a nursing home to attribute the cause of death to whatever medical conditions brought them to the nursing home,” he said.

Unlike children’s cribs and bedrails, which must by law meet certain design criteria and pass safety tests, adult bedrails are relatively unregulated.

Steven Miles, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, first identified the trend of adult bedrail accidents about two decades ago, leading the FDA to issue a safety alert for bedrails associated with hospital beds in 1995.

Despite the FDA’s alert, people continued to be injured and die tangled in adult bedrails. So the FDA formed a working group made up of manufacturers, hospitals, health care providers and government officials. The group issued non-legally binding guidance for hospital bedrails in 2006 but decided against requiring warning labels after pushback from industry.

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