Why clothing donation bins can be deadly for marginalized people
Bins can be 'far more hazardous than it may seem on the surface,' fire official says
Standing tall and bright in parking lots and along roadsides — emblazoned with messages about the value of charity — used goods donation bins can be a tool for good.
But the bins' design can make them an inescapable death trap if a person climbs into one.
"It's far more hazardous than it may seem on the surface," Vancouver Fire Rescue spokesperson Jonathan Gormick explained.
"They may not have warning signs but they are a mechanical device with moving parts and there's a high risk of entrapment."
Gormick says the bins' hatches are designed in a way that keeps goods inside and protected, but if a person gets trapped in the mechanism, they can be constricted and killed.
A woman in her 30s died Monday on Vancouver's West Side when she became trapped in a bin and was unable to free herself.
Hatches bind, crush victims
Gormick, pulling on the hatch of a typical bin in near the West Point Grey Community Centre, showed how the rust-speckled, loudly squeaking contraptions can kill.
The designs vary, he said, but tend to be like a mailbox or safety deposit box. They open up so items can be placed in a tray and dropped inside once closed. Sometimes a flap folds down when a donor is placing goods in to keep hands out of the storage area.
But if a person is trying to get in, the hatch can close on them.
"Especially if their weight shifted in such a way that it put weight on the mechanism and it pinched their body and they weren't able to move forward or backward either into the box or further out," he said.
"With your weight in a precarious position because you're off the ground, you can't push off to move forward and if you try to move back your weight shifts … tightening the mechanism."
As the hatch closes, it can bind and crush a person, he said.
Getting pulled out is difficult because the victim can be further constricted.
Some people have pushed themselves further into the bin and survived, he said, but even that is a risky proposition because once inside they may face either extreme heat or extreme cold depending on the time of year.
Is there a way to prevent such deaths? Gormick says he's not sure.
The people who tend to get trapped in the bins are marginalized and desperate, he said, and are often looking for goods to resell.
He likens them to people who steal copper from electrical equipment despite electrocution risks and deterrents like razor wire.
"If people have time and the desperation to get in, they'll get in," Gormick said.
He said people who are driven to climb into these types of bins need better support and resources so they aren't driven to risky acts.
His message is for anyone in distress in a bin or witnessing such a situation is to call 911 if able.