Selecting durable and safe furniture

June 30, 2009
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Tips for choosing pieces that will stand up to your facility's demands

Behavioral healthcare facilities have unique needs and criteria when it comes to selecting furniture, as the products' durability and safety features must be considered. So provider organizations need to thoroughly research vendors before making a purchase, advises Becky van Leur, an account executive specializing in healthcare at furniture dealer OstermanCron, Inc.

“[Behavioral healthcare] is a specialty so just because [a furniture vendor] has done a physician's practice doesn't mean it can provide you with the right solution for a mental health center,” she points out.

Van Leur, who recently helped select furniture for the Lindner Center of HOPE in Mason, Ohio (See http://behavioral.net/lindner0908), offers the following tips for selecting and installing pieces suitable to meet the demands of a behavioral healthcare environment:

  • Examine the furniture's frame-its “bones”-for a sturdy structure, such as wood or metal.

  • Choose furniture with rounded edges and without sharp corners to reduce the potential for patient, staff, or visitor injury.

  • Use metal brackets to attach furniture to the walls or floors, where applicable, to discourage patients from using furniture as barricades, tools, or weapons.

  • Consider sled-base chairs (The legs are connected from front to back) to deter patients from removing chair legs for use as bats or bludgeons.

  • Select desks, dressers, etc., with nonremovable drawers so that patients and family members cannot hide any prohibited items. In fact, consider furniture with shelves.

  • Choose cabinets with sloped tops so that patients will not place items on top of them and forget them. This design also prevents suicide attempts by eliminating flat surfaces on which patients could hang or choke themselves.

One of two great rooms in the adolescent inpatient unit at bradley hospital. the lounge chairs were customized and modified with velcro closures instead of zippers

Photos by Robin Blossom/Lifespan

One of two great rooms in the adolescent inpatient unit at Bradley Hospital. The lounge chairs were customized and modified with Velcro closures instead of zippers

A common theme in van Leur's guidelines is to select furniture that cannot be disassembled easily. Decision makers at Bradley Hospital in East Providence, Rhode Island, followed this principle when examining furniture for their 44,000-square-foot inpatient addition, which opened this spring.

“Any exposed screws had to be safety screws, tamper-resistant screws, so a child doesn't take the chair apart or injure himself,” explains Henry Sachs, MD, medical director of Bradley's children inpatient unit. “Actually, when some of the chairs came to us as prototypes, they didn't have that feature, so we had to send them back and say, ‘No, all of them have to have safety screws.’”

Van Leur stresses that aesthetics need not be sacrificed when considering safety and durability, but she emphasizes that appearance shouldn't be the driving factor.

“Sometimes we'll work with designers and they will have certain looks in mind, but you may be thinking, ‘Well, that looks pretty, but is that going to hold up?’ Do not go for pretty. It is more important to buy something that is going to be durable and safe for the patients,” she advises.

Yet facilities can have the best of both worlds. For example, van Leur suggests considering chairs and sofas with vinyl upholstery or Crypton fabrics, which stand up to spills as well as other damage, are easy to clean, and are available in a range of colors and patterns.

Bradley Hospital selected Crypton fabrics to upholster some furniture in its children and adolescent units as well as its Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. Dr. Sachs says fabrics with a pleasing ocean theme of blues, greens, yellows, and sand and sun colors were chosen for a fun, whimsical look. The type of material chosen also cuts down on the spread of bacteria from patients who accidentally urinate or spill liquids on the furniture.

The beanbag chairs at bradley hospital are made of poly-cotton material, which is difficult to rip but easy to clean
The beanbag chairs at Bradley Hospital are made of poly-cotton material, which is difficult to rip but easy to clean.

When purchasing furniture, beware of falling into the trap of valuing price over safety. Van Leur warns that it can be tempting to select less expensive furniture, but it is important to remember that cheaper furniture may not be as durable. This would require it to be replaced more frequently-thereby increasing long-term costs. And selecting potentially unsafe furniture can lead to patient injuries and even lawsuits, she points out.

Thus, van Leur suggests purchasing a warranty that guarantees the product's integrity and details the manufacturer's responsibility for repairing or replacing defective pieces. Although this may add to the furniture's initial cost, she says it is a wise financial choice in the long run, regardless if the warranty is for two years, five years, or a lifetime.

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