Exploding tables: glass table tops could be less safe than you think

Glass tables seem ideal for modern living — they take up less visual space. But what if your dining table or desk shatters?
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A glass table top can be bought for less than £100, but the damage caused if it should break can run into thousands of pounds. Fiona McNulty, a property lawyer and Homes & Property columnist, had just wiped down her Habitat Dublin glass dining table and was turning away from it when it “exploded”.
“There was the most almighty bang, like a shot going off,” she says. “I turned immediately, saw glass out in the garden and thought my patio door had broken. My leg was covered in glass and bleeding. I showered and tried to remove all the little bits of glass, but ended up having to spend the morning in A&E. I still have glass in my thumb.”
Hours of shovelling glass into bins followed, and many hours of phone calls. The table top was seven years old, so Habitat’s position was that it was too long after purchase for it to have been a manufacturing fault. McNulty, however, thinks the table can’t have been fit for purpose.
“The glass didn’t break in a safe way as one would expect from safety glass, but shattered into shards,” she claims. “Some were big and long, others were tiny but still very sharp.”
Shattered: Fiona McNulty’s table
But Habitat responds that its table tops, made from toughened — or tempered — glass, meet British and European standards and Furniture Industry Research Association best practice guidelines. The research association, shown photos of McNulty’s shattered table by Habitat, commented: “The mode of failure is consistent with how we would expect toughened glass to fail, but is considered preferable to annealed glass which would fail in large shards.”
McNulty says her curtains and sofa were written off by the fine shards, while the kitchen underfloor heating had to be drained because the grille was full of glass. The damage totalled about £4,000, most of which is being covered by her insurers, but she is also considering a personal injury claim.
She has replaced the table with a zinc-top model: “I would never buy a glass table again. My dog frequently lies under our dining table. You can see how he, or even worse a child, could have been really badly hurt.”
Glass tables can break for a number of reasons. They can be damaged by stress, such as a knock to the side, or have a thermal break if an area of glass is hotter than the rest. A hot dish, radiator or direct sunlight heating one part while the rest is cooler can be enough to cause a break. Sometimes the damage is done but goes unnoticed, then the glass implodes hours later.
Safety glass breaks very differently to the “annealed” or plate glass used in windows, because it is designed to shatter into little cubes like a car windscreen, to minimise injury. Sweeping up all those pieces is infinitely preferably to being impaled on a large shard. But, as McNulty’s experience shows, the small pieces of glass can still be sharp enough to cause injury. So perhaps “safety” glass is a misnomer.
Her experience is not unique. When she tweeted about it she got a reply which read: “The same thing happened to us!! In the middle of the night!!” Emily Sames, a manager for The Salcombe Trading Company furniture retailer, was in a family holiday home when she had her fright.
She explains: “The dining table shattered in the night. We think it had overheated during the day. It was the most frightening thing ever. I thought it was a burglar because it sounded like a huge window had been smashed. Luckily no one was hurt, but if we had been sitting at the table the glass would have definitely gone through our skin. There were shards sticking out of the floorboards.”
Sames isn’t the only interiors professional to be wary of glass. “Designers use glass in, say, coffee tables because it’s transparent so it doesn’t block out light in the room,” says Jonathan Thomas, 3D designer at Jonathanmaker.com and visiting lecturer at UCA Canterbury.
“I’m amazed by advances in making with glass. But I’m naturally suspicious of it — it strikes me as an unstable material. We’re pushing the boundaries of what is possible with glass. I worked on bridges made entirely from glass while at Heatherwick Studio.
“But, for me, the aesthetic value of using glass doesn’t outweigh its disadvantages as a material. There’s a failure rate that you just don’t get with, say, a good-quality oak table. The oak is more likely to last 200 years. Once glass breaks it completely breaks.”

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