Tyson's toddler's treadmill death sparks debate: Was it the safety lanyard? Are changes coming?

Emails and reports were all over the Internet on May 25 and 26 after news came out that Mike Tyson's 4-year-old toddler was on life support in critical condition after getting tangled and apparently choking on a cord dangling from a treadmill at home. She died from her injuries May 26. Certainly, a tragedy and one that will prompt talk in the fitness industry, the story also quickly spun out of control as the details from the Phoenix, Ariz., police reports morphed into wording that created confusion and, potentially, panic. The topic has created a buzz around some manufacturers' offices.
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Emails and reports were all over the Internet on May 25 and 26 after news came out that Mike Tyson's 4-year-old toddler was on life support in critical condition after getting tangled and apparently choking on a cord dangling from a treadmill at home. She died from her injuries May 26.

Certainly, a tragedy and one that will prompt talk in the fitness industry, the story also quickly spun out of control as the details from the Phoenix, Ariz., police reports morphed into wording that created confusion and, potentially, panic.

For the record, the Phoenix Police Department wrote the following (this is verbatim from the police report):

The girl "was on a treadmill with her neck on what is described as a cable that was attached to the treadmill. The mother immediately took her daughter off the cable, called 911, and began CPR. Police officers arrived moments later. The initial radio call was of a child having been electrocuted, but this was not the case."

National and regional media were reporting various accounts including that she was caught in a "cord dangling from the console" or even "under the console," from "wires behind the display," "from a rope hanging from the treadmill," or even that she had been "tangled in an electrical cord" -- none of which seems to be true. A spokesman for the police department was reported in newspapers as noting the department believes the treadmill was not running but the toddler may have been playing on it as if it were running.

"I'll assume it's the lanyard, and it's the very feature that is designed to protect people," said Ken Carpenter, national sales director for SportsArt Fitness, whose product was not the one involved. "Certainly, it's shocking and sad. It's terrible.

The topic has created a buzz around some manufacturers' offices.

At the Texas offices of Fitness Master, whose product is also not the one in question, President Eric Dick said they have discussed ways a safety shut-off could be different, but the industry has yet to come up with an alternative to the current system. The system used by most is that of a cord or string that is attached to a magnetic switch on the display or front rail and is intended to clip to a user. If the user falls back too far from the console or simply falls, the cord pulls on a switch that disengages a circuit breaker to bring the treadmill to a stop. In most circumstances, the cord completely breaks free although Carpenter noted some commercial models have cords that do not totally come off to keep the safety device from "walking away."

The system has apparently been in use for at least two decades, with some version dating back to Quinton and Pacer models in the late '70s, Eric Dick said. A spokesperson for Life Fitness said the company first put the "safety stop operated switches," as they are called in engineering terminology, on its treadmills in 1994, only three years after the company came out with its first treadmills, basing them on EN standards.

"I am not sure there is a better or safer way than a pull cord attached to a user," said Eric Dick.

In Tyson's backyard in Phoenix, the TV crews headed over to specialty retailer AtHome Fitness for a report on the accident and to talk to co-owner Greg Feeder about safety on equipment. Click here to see that May 26, 2009, report.

"The equipment is not a toy," Feeder said on the report, also noting that higher-priced equipment usually has better quality safety precautions. "Just like you wouldn't let your child go into your garage and play with your car unsupervised."

According to a review of Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) data in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in September 2004, there are 8,700 injuries a year to children from home exercise equipment, with treadmills posing a particular risk to children under the age of 5. It reported there were 1,009 injuries reported to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System from January 1996 to Sept. 30, 2000, with 300 (29.7 percent) of those to infants, toddlers and children under 5. Click here to see the entire study and references.

The Journal of Pediatric Surgery has reported recently that most injuries were burns and about a third occurred while the treadmill was in use by an adult. The Australian government has decided the risk is high enough that its Department of Commerce in New South Wales has launched a campaign to warn parents of the dangers (Click here to read about that action.). In addition, as of June 1, 2009, the New South Wales government will require all new treadmills to carry a "prominent warning sticker" to alert users to keep children away from the machine when it is in use.

Eric Dick explained that other safety measures have been tried since the early '80s, including systems using sonar or light beams that can assess the position of a user.

"But the problem is with these type of devices is that you are not able to adjust sensitivity to all lighting conditions, all stride conditions, all size conditions, and you add many more component breakdown issues that can and will occur," he said.

Most don't seem to think there will be industry-wide changes, but many expressed mourning about the tragedy.

"This was very much so, a tragic event that took a young person's life," said Ed Banasky, national sales manager at Fitness Master, "that no one wants to see happen."

--Therese Iknoian

SNEWS® View: If SNEWS were a retailer, we'd waste no time proactively calling our local media who are likely covering the story. It's an invaluable opportunity to get yourself quoted and educate the public, too. Local news media will ask about the safety standards used and how safe equipment overall is, presenting an opportunity for specialty retailers to showcase the brands they carry and the measures used, as well as explain to the public what responsibility they also carry at home to use shut-off switches or hide power cables from curious kids. Certainly, the risks are real, but a child can decide to turn on a treadmill just as they may decide to stick their hand in a garbage disposal or start the car.

We can only speculate that the cord in question was a safety lanyard. We also assume being the kind of guy that Tyson is that the treadmill he likely had at home was a commercial model, meaning it is possible the safety cable does not totally disengage. And although the police reported the equipment was not running, we wonder if perhaps the toddler turned it on to walk on it "just like daddy" but was also playing with the cord. When the speed became too fast or she panicked, she could have become tangled while also pulling hard enough to stop the piece. Still, it didn't have to be running since children can strangle themselves in drapery pull cords, too. Of course, this is all speculation but it raises an issue for all in the industry to discuss and debate: Is there more manufacturers can do to make the equipment even safer? We don't think treadmills will fall out of favor since they are just all too easy to use. But perhaps this tragic incident will raise even more awareness.

--SNEWS® Editors

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