British Columbia

UBC engineering students tasked with designing safer donation bins after series of deaths

First-year engineering students are tasked with coming up with a conceptual design, which will then be handed to fourth-year students to turn into a full-size prototype.

Recent deaths, including that of a man in West Vancouver over the weekend, have fuelled project's urgency

In B.C. alone, five people have died in clothing donation bins, like the one pictured, since 2015. (CBC)

An engineering professor is turning to his students to design safer clothing donation bins after a series of deaths caused by people getting trapped inside them.

A 34-year-old man was found dead on Sunday, stuck part way in the opening of a donation bin in West Vancouver, B.C. He was the seventh person in Canada, and the fifth in B.C., to die after being trapped in one of the bins since 2015.

"Unfortunately, in the initial stage of [donation bin] design, they never considered, 'What if someone got inside?,'" said Ray Taheri, who teaches engineering at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.  

"It becomes a human trap."

The opening hatch, designed to keep goods inside and protected, has a dangerous flaw: if a person leaning into the bin gets trapped in the mechanism, they can become constricted.

Donation bins around British Columbia are being pulled off the streets following the latest death.

The charity Inclusion B.C., which has more than 140 bins around the province, says it will remove them all until safety modifications can be made.

Vancouver Fire Rescue's Jonathan Gormick explains how the bin's design can be inescapable. 0:57

From design to prototype 

That's where Taheri's students come in.

The first-year engineering students are tasked with coming up with a conceptual design, which will then be handed to fourth-year students next year to turn into a full-size prototype.

"There are quite a few variations of innovative designs. Some of them are completely rethinking and redesigning this business and some of them are a kind of retrofitting solution," Taheri said.

The designs range from adding a weight sensor to the hatch so it locks open if anything heavier than a bag of clothes is placed on it, to creating a way to open the bin from the inside in an emergency.

"The best solution is to retrofit a mechanism to every individual design," Taheri said, as opposed to collecting and removing all the bins, which some advocates are calling for.

"Everyone involved, all the companies, needs to step forward and then put all our resources together to solve this problem."

This is not the first time the engineering department has focused on solutions to community issues — two years ago, the focus was on modifying shopping carts for homeless people — but the recent deaths have "fuelled the urgency" of the project, Taheri said.

An engineering professor is turning to his students to design safer clothing donation bins after a rash of deaths from people getting trapped. 7:47

With files from The Early Edition

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