Many home paper shredders that are in use today are defective and dangerous.  In this context, “defective” means the products are unfit for their intended use and they do not carry adequate instructions and warnings for their safe use.  “Dangerous” means that they regularly cause injuries that are more severe than the average user would anticipate.  I have represented multiple families who had a child’s fingers partially amputated by a paper shredder that they had wrongfully assumed was safe for use in the home.

There are numerous factors that can render a home paper shredder defective and dangerous, especially when the shredder is placed in a home with small children present.  Here are the most important factors:

a. The height of the paper shredder (when positioned on the floor, next to a desk) puts the opening to the blades at 12 to 18 inches off the ground, which is often the perfect height for access by a toddler.

b. The opening to the blades is made of compliant, flexible materials that allow the opening to widen as a cone-shaped probe is inserted into the opening of the paper shredder, often in blatant violation of Underwriters’ Laboratory standards.

c. The geometry of the paper shredder casing, particularly in the area around the opening to the blades, may increase the potential for a trap-and-pull event to occur.

d. The power of the motor, measured in terms of maximum pull force, is excessive in relation to the anticipated demands on the home paper shredder and in relation to the shredder’s other design features.

e. To conserve space and make the paper shredder smaller, the cutting blades are often positioned too close to the slot opening where paper is fed into the machine.

f. The home paper shredders are “defectively marketed” because the manufacturers and retailers over-emphasize the suitability for home use, without employing warnings, instructions, and design features that would discourage leaving the shredders in areas that can be accessed by small children.

Evaluating Your Home Paper Shredder. If you own a home paper shredder and you have children under the age of ten, you are probably wondering whether your shredder could be defective.  Paper shredders vary greatly in design, and these differences in design translate into huge differences in the safety of the machine.  Here are some concrete things to consider:

Height of the shredder. We all know that small children and toddlers can reach dangerous objects at heights we thought they were incapable of reaching.  Children have boundless ingenuity in finding ways to climb, especially when parents are not looking.  Nonetheless, a paper shredder should not make unauthorized access to the machine easy.

The heights of average toddlers from 12 to 30 months old range from 30 to 36 inches.  If the height of your home paper shredder is significantly less than a toddler’s height, it may place the opening to the blades at or near the exact height that the toddler’s hands normally operate.  If the shredders’ height places the flat surface around the opening a “working height” for the toddler, the toddler can be expected to place objects on top of the shredder and to use the shredder for balance.

Pull Force. Unfortunately, it may be difficult for the average parent to measure the pull force of the motors in a paper shredder.  Some home paper shredders have been found to have a pull-force in excess of 150 lbs.  This pull force is measured when the paper shredder is fed its maximum recommended capacity (typically between 5 and 12 sheets of paper), and a load cell measures the force with which those sheets are pulled into the machine.  When the pull force is excessive, the shredder can very quickly overcome a child who does not release her grip on the papers.  Small children simply do not have the necessary awareness of danger to know that the paper fed into the machine must be released quickly.  The excessive pull force pulls the child’s fingers into the feed slot.

If your home paper shredder eats through everything (staples, DVDs, over-feeds, etc.), and seems to have the strength to jerk papers from your hands, it may not be the best paper shredder for home use.

Geometry of design and construction. Even when an inlet slot on a paper shredder appears to be too narrow for a child’s fingers to enter, the design can be deceiving. The tight slot offers the illusion that a finger or child’s hand could never fit into the shredder.

Geometry can be a dangerous factor.  If the area around the inlet slot is designed to guide paper edges into the slot, this funneling (or channeling) design feature greatly increases the risk of injury.  The funnel shape, where the surfaces around the slot curve downward into the opening, is responsible for a “trap and pull” hazard.

“Trap and pull” occurs when a piece of paper is drawn towards the opening while still in the grip of a child. Typically the child’s fingers (rather than the child’s thumb) are closest to the opening as the paper is drawn in.  When the fingers first come into contact with the machine, the fingernails typically touch the casing first, and the soft pads of the fingertips are in contact with the paper.  The funnel shape traps the fingertip and the paper simultaneously, and pulls them together into the slot.

When this “trap and pull” phenomenon occurs, the forces of friction magnify the possibility of injury.  The paper shredder casing is usually made of plastic or thin stainless steel, which has a very low coefficient of friction, allowing the paper to slide effortlessly into the slot.  The casing also has a low coefficient of friction with the finger-nail side of the child’s finger, allowing the fingers to be drawn towards the blades.  The highest coefficient of friction exists between the soft moist skin of the child’s fingertip pads and the paper.  This high coefficient of friction accentuates the “trapping” mechanism created by the funnel-shaped design, allowing the child’s fingers to be drawn with the paper into the shredder.

The construction of the opening may further contribute to the extreme hazard of amputation and other injury.  If the thin plastic or sheet metal around the opening are not reinforced, they can deflect under pressure to increase the size of the opening into the paper shredder.  When the machine is off, press down on the edges of the opening.  If you can see any visible movement, even though you may have to press hard to do it, the construction may be defective.  Remember that the pull force of the motor could pull a child’s finger into the machine with a force approaching 100 pounds of force.

Distance of the blades from the opening. To determine the distance between the cutting blades in the shredder and the paper slot, begin to feed a long sheet of paper into the machine, and then stop the machine (using the on/off switch or disconnecting the shredder from the power source).  While the machine is off, use a pencil to mark the edge of the paper right at the paper inlet.  Then turn the power back on, and remove the paper by reversing the feed.  Once the paper fragment is freed from the shredder, you can measure the distance from the pencil line to the ragged edges of the paper.  Some home paper shredders have as little as 1.25 inches from the opening to the blades.

Having more distance simply makes the shredder safer.  In the unfortunate occasion that a child’s finger is drawn into the paper inlet, the paper inlet will eventually become too restricting to allow the fingers to advance further into the machine.  In some cases the child’s hand appeared to stop at the last knuckle joint, partly because the hand simply became too thick to advance through the slot, and partly because the child’s thumb (most likely tucked under the fingers) prevented further advancement. The machines in those cases amputated everything that was more than 1.25 inches from the last knuckle joint.  Had the blades been positioned only 2 inches from the opening, the severity of the injuries would have been lessened significantly.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers of home paper shredders did not consider these factors in designing their products. Although the manufacturers were warned by agencies like the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Texas Department of Insurance, many manufacturers ignored the hazards, and failed to redesign their shredders that were marketed for home use.  Even when these negligent companies finally changed their designs, they made no effort to recall the previous models, allowing those defective and dangerous machines to sit in hundreds of thousands of homes. Many of those machines are still in use, silently waiting to inflict injury on an unsuspecting toddler. The manufacturers’ failure to act makes those companies liable under theories of product liability for the injuries sustained by children (and even pets).