The recent deaths of two people who became trapped inside clothing donation bins in British Columbia and Ontario have raised questions about the designs of these boxes and if there is a way to make them safer.

There have been at least eight deaths related to people attempting to get inside donation bins in Canada since 2015. Five of those incidents occurred in British Columbia with the latest death just over a week ago in West Vancouver.

On Tuesday morning, Toronto police responded to a call about a 35-year-old woman who was found trapped, without vital signs, halfway inside a donation bin. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

These tragic deaths have spurred at least one engineer to look at how people are becoming trapped in the bins and how this can be prevented.

How do they become trapped?

Ray Taheri, an engineering professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, said homeless people or those in need will often to try to pull themselves inside of the bins to reach the contents inside or to shelter themselves for warmth.

He said the manufacturers of these types of bins – and there are at least nine or 10 different versions in Canada – most likely didn’t account for desperate people trying to get inside of them when they were designed.

“They get stuck there. They try to crawl in, but the further they go they get more stuck,” he told during a telephone interview from Kelowna, B.C. on Tuesday.

Taheri explained that people use force to push off from the ground to crawl inside of the bin’s opening, but as they go deeper inside, it becomes more difficult for them to get back out because they have nothing to hold onto while trying to push themselves back out.

“Most of the deaths, I believe, are caused not because the person succeeded to get inside, but that he or she got kind of suspended or stuck between the inside and outside,” he said. “Due to the compression to his or her chest and a lack of oxygen, this is kind of like a death trap.”

How to prevent future deaths?

In B.C., the municipality of West Vancouver and the non-profit organization Inclusion BC have planned to shut down donation bins while they seek a safer alternative. Inclusion BC said they have already started removing 146 of their bins located across the province.

Despite their good intentions, Taheri said he doesn’t believe removing the bins is the best solution.

The engineering professor said thousands of people, including those who try to get inside of the bins, depend on the donations collected there. He also said the bins have created hundreds of jobs across Canada.

“We don’t want to take them and destroy them. Obviously, there’s a purpose for them in society,” he said.

Taheri said they also need to take into account the colossal expense of physically transporting them, storing them, and later returning them to their original locations. He estimates it would cost nearly $1 million to remove the approximately 2,000 donation bins in B.C. alone.

Instead, the engineering instructor said he believes retrofitting the individual bins would be a less expensive and sustainable option before a safer, standardized design can be developed in the future.

Possible bin modifications:

Taheri said he’s creating a task force consisting of several of his students and fellow engineering colleagues at the university to design modifications that can be used in combination to make the existing bins safer.

1) Make it more difficult to gain entry:

Taheri said they could decrease the size of the bin openings, but they would have to ensure it’s not too small that a bag of clothes wouldn’t fit. He also said they would have to implement additional safety measures to discourage adults from asking children to squeeze inside the bins instead.

Another option is to add a feature, such as a foot pedal, which requires a person to step on it in order to open the bin door and drop something inside.

2) Motion detector:

Taheri also proposed installing an intelligent motion detector system inside of the donation bins that would be able to recognize the difference between a bag of clothes and a human body. Once a person’s motions are detected, he said the system would alert emergency crews.

3) Unlocking mechanism:

For people who manage to get completely inside of the bins, Taheri suggested an automatic unlocking mechanism that would only open from the inside and allow the trapped person to exit.

4) Automatic locking system at night:

As the majority of these incidents occur at night, Taheri said there is the possibility of installing a locking system that would engage after dark. He said the locks would have to be robust, however, so they couldn’t be opened with a crow bar.

Future designs:

In terms of a long-term solution, Taheri has turned to his students for assistance. In the Fall, he tasked his first-year engineer students to design a new donation bin that would prevent people from crawling inside.

In November, they held a competition and selected a winning design fourth-year engineering students will use to create a fully functioning prototype.

Taheri said the top design consisted of a cylindrical-shaped bin that would have a rotating top. Donators would have to use a lever to move the rotational top in order to place their bag in a small opening. Once the bag was placed, the person would use the lever again to rotate the device again in the same direction and the bag would fall into the bin.

The rotating top can only be moved in one direction because it uses a ratchet system so potential thieves would not be able to see earlier donations or the contents inside the bin.

Taheri said that, although a completely new design such as the one proposed by his students requires funding and years to complete, he said it’s necessary to eventually come up with one, standardized design for all future donation bins.

“The fact that there are many types, it makes it challenging,” he said. “There should be a standard for these bins.”