Are hammocks safe? Tragic death of young sisters highlights risk

The tragic death of two Ohio girls after a brick pillar holding the hammock collapsed on them, shows the danger of hammocks. With proper use, they are safe and fun.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

The Scaravilli sisters Scout, 14, and Chasey, 12, adored each other and their family considered them beautiful both inside and out. They were often found playing together in the house and backyard. So, it was only natural that the two curled up together in a hammock, tied to a tree and a brick pillar, to enjoy a lazy day. But the pillar collapsed on them, causing grave injuries, according to WKYC in Cleveland. They died soon after the accident.

“I don’t blame anybody, I don’t blame myself, I don’t blame those girls,” J.J. Scaravilli, Scout and Chasey’s father, told WKYC. “I looked at it 100 times. I never thought a brick pillar would come down like that — it was never in my mind.”

Losing the girls shocked their entire community of Cleveland Heights.

“They’re in everybody’s hearts,” their father said at a vigil for his daughters. “They had a lot of support."

Few would suspect that a hammock could be deadly and for the most part, they are safe.

"There are isolated case reports (of injuries)," Dr. Alfred Sacchetti, spokesperson for American College of Emergency Physicians and chief of emergency services at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, in Camden, New Jersey, who did not treat the girls, told TODAY. "It is a very sad case."

Sacchetti has treated people with tailbone bruises from falling from hammocks, but hasn't seen many people with hammock-related fractures or injuries. The case reports indicate that hammocks are most dangerous when they're not hung on something stable.

"Occasionally, you'll see a report of either end of the hammock not appropriately secured," he explained. "So that that would be one thing that to be concerned about."

Children can sometimes get their heads stuck in hammock strings, which end up choking them.

"There are reports of strangulations," Sacchetti said. "Usually, it involves a younger child unsupervised and not just laying on a hammock but standing on it or doing other kind of acrobatic activities and then you you wind up with with the child getting twisted in either of the ropes at the end."

Homemade hammocks provided a greater risk of strangulation, he said, because they don't adhere to safe regulations like hammock manufacturers do.

"If you're going to have a hammock, it's probably not a good idea to just try and make it out of what you have laying around the house," he added.

Supervision and following instructions keep kids safe

Children are often getting into accidents, which is why experts recommend close supervision when they use something made for adults.

“Honestly, there are so many things out there that can be potentially dangerous to children,” Meaghan Crawley, a traumatic injury prevention coordinator at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, in Grand Rapids, Michigan told TODAY. “The biggest thing is making sure that you know what the risks are and that you're taking precautions to minimize those risks. Awareness is the first step."

Having adults supervise children in hammocks makes them safer. Though, it is always unsafe to have babies in a hammock. Infants need to lay on hard surfaces on their back for safe sleep to avoid sudden infant death and a hammock just doesn’t provide that.

“You need to make sure children are not unattended,” Crawley said. “Hammocks are not approved for infants.”

Crawley recommends that people read the instructions that come with the hammock and set it up as directed. Such directions go through testing to make sure they advise people to use a product safely. Hanging a hammock from a stand made specifically for it can also increase its safety as the stand also undergoes safety examinations.

“In the U.S. there are some pretty strict regulations and that’s why manufacturers put together instruction manuals,” she explained. “It is absolutely imperative that when you're setting up a hammock that you're following the instructions from front to back.”

Once assembled, sticking to a few common "rules of thumb" will ensure relaxing, comfortable hammock time:

  • Don’t install it more than 2 feet from the ground.
  • Sit slowly into it and even out your body weight while reclining.
  • Don’t jump, stand or bounce in it.
  • Don’t hang it over a hill or water.
  • Make sure that its anchors are secure. Posts should be at least 6 inches in diameter with a third of it buried underground. Trees shouldn’t be creaking and groaning because that indicates it might be dead and more likely to fall.

She also encourages parents to keep a careful eye on their children.

“Accidents can happen so, so incredibly quickly,” she said. “It’s nice and relaxing to lay down in a hammock. You just have to be aware of the risks.”

Scaravilli agrees.

"Kids aren't into laying in things. Kids are into using them as exercise activities so they're jumping on them, spinning on them, rolling around on them," he said. "If you're going to have a a hammock and you have a child, the hammock's off limits to them unless you are supervising."