Alumna uses child development knowledge to help create safe toys

While most children love chicken nuggets, often they’re more excited about the toy they get with their meal than the food itself.

[img_caption align=”right” alt=”Lauren Rust”]Their parents may not give a second thought to how the toy was selected or if it is safe for their child. Fortunately for families around the world, there’s Lauren Rust, M.S. ’11, and her colleagues.

As a safety consultant at Intertek, an international quality and safety solutions company, Rust works with quick service restaurants and other companies that distribute premium and promotional items for kids.

“I use my knowledge of child development to help our customers understand the ways in which children of various ages will use and explore the toy they are given,” Rust explains. “With that basic knowledge, we can then identify the potential hazards that may exist with a product and how to mitigate them before the item ever makes it into the hands of a child.”

From childcare to a unique role

Rust had always been drawn to working with children, spending seven years working in licensed home daycare. But after graduating from DePaul
University with a degree in psychology, she was unsure of what to do next.

“I really loved working with kids and wanted a better understanding of child development,” she says. “My boss at the time was very familiar with Erikson and knew it was the cream of the crop. She encouraged me to apply.”

Two years later — and filled with the child development knowledge she had been seeking — Rust began to prepare for graduation from Erikson. However, she still didn’t know what career path she wanted to pursue.

“I had been checking the Erikson job board on a regular basis and one day saw this post that caught my attention, as it was so unique,” she says. The job — a research scientist at Intertek — combined several of her interests: working with customers using child development knowledge, research, and hands-on work with children. Rust immediately applied and started two days after graduation.

Evaluating toy safety

At Intertek’s Research and Observation Center in Oak Brook, Illinois, Rust and other research scientists observed how diverse groups of children and their caregivers responded to toys before Intertek’s customers invested in producing or distributing them.

“We would structure the environment in different ways to observe how children were using and interacting with items, and we worked with caregivers to try to understand how they viewed an item,” Rust says.

Caregivers were asked to provide feedback such as what age range they thought was appropriate for the toy, what they liked about the toy, and whether or not they thought it was safe.

In addition to observing, Rust often made presentations to customers on a range of child development topics, such as the developmental sequence of fine and gross motor skills in young children.

Rust also shared her child development knowledge with Intertek safety consultants, discussing with her colleagues, for example, how children ages birth to three explore objects in various ways, such as “mouthing.” With this knowledge, the consultants would then look at the shape and size of a product to ensure that it would not cause any severe injury or fatality.

“We have a lot of data that, unfortunately, comes from past injuries and fatalities with related products. By using this information, we have an understanding of what types of products will pose various hazards, such as airway obstruction, based on the overall size and shape of the product,” Rust says. “Sometimes we recommend that the design should change to prevent this. Other times we are confident that the item would not present a real hazard and therefore not result in an injury or fatality.”

Hands-on to digital

After two years as a research scientist, Rust became a safety consultant and moved to Intertek’s Atlanta office. In her current role, she works directly with customers.

“Now I can look at a product and explain to the customer right away what the potential hazards of a product are, and why,” she says.

In addition to identifying physical hazards in toys, Rust also reviews customer’s digital content for children to ensure that it is age-appropriate. Activities that are encouraged by apps and digital content must be things children will be able to do, and appropriate disclaimers, such as having adult supervision, must be included.

“Our customers know that the market is moving from hands-on toys to digital,” Rust says. “Some kids are using smart phones and tablets at a really young age, and our customers want to make sure that what they’re putting out there in this digital world is developmentally appropriate, as well as safe.”

Safety hits home

Product safety is important to Rust professionally, and it will soon become even more important at her home. Rust and her husband are expecting their first child this winter, and she says much of what she’s learned from her role at Intertek will be useful as a new parent.

“I now understand that just because a product is sold in a store, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe, so I always take the time to look at the item before giving it to a child,” she says. “I also understand that labeling on the package is there for a reason. Something that’s intended for ages six and up is really not appropriate for a younger child, even if you think the child is super advanced.”

Most important, Rust says, is caregiver supervision for very young children. There are many products that adults may not even recognize as potentially hazardous to young children, and it is often the items that are attractive to children, yet not intended to be used by them, that can cause the most serious injuries or fatalities.

Preparation leading to success

Rust credits Erikson for preparing her for her unique career path. “I’m in a very different environment than many Erikson graduates, as I’m working in corporate America,” Rust says. “One of the things Erikson prepared me for is how to effectively communicate with people in this type of environment.

“I learned how to effectively work with adults, not just kids. Those skills have really allowed me to be so successful in my job and allowed me to move around in the company.”