This week is National Consumer Protection Week, and I think more than ever we need to focus on how we can best protect consumers against unreasonable risks of harm. Though we have done an admirable job of that over the years (doing things like improving portable generators and improving crib safety), we need to zero in on our priorities, given our limited resources. The sequester cut CPSC’s budget, so we must be sure that we are laser-focused on our mission. We cannot afford to waste resources chasing secondary violations, paperwork slip-ups, and minor infractions. Although they may technically be violations, they often do not pose safety issues. We need to identify where and when there is the greatest risk of harm from a consumer product, and be there to protect the consumer from it.
Archive for the 'Consumer Product Safety' Category
Sometimes what seems like a good idea just doesn’t work out. When that happens, we should admit it and correct course.
As the CPSC and Congress have struggled to try to reduce the number of children drowning, one idea that has not worked is a grant program to spur states to pass particular water safety and swimming pool construction laws. For the past few years, Congress has set aside several million dollars for grants to states and localities that pass certain pool safety laws. Because the CPSC does not administer federal grants like this, we pay the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to administer this program. As we try for the third year to make this grant program work, we should look at where we stand:
- Since the beginning of the program, not one state has applied for a grant and not one dollar has been disbursed, despite changes made to improve the program.
- We will soon have paid CDC almost half a million dollars to administer a grant program with no takers.
Drowning is a safety problem that must be dealt with as effectively as possible. The public resources that have been allocated to an unused grant program could have been, and should be, used to actually address the issue. Trying to encourage states to pass laws by offering them a small, one-time shot of cash does not seem to be the best way to achieve our safety objective.
I suggest that Congress can—and should—find better ways to spend scarce public resources. That means either allowing the Commission greater discretion in using the funds to further pool safety or directing the funds elsewhere.
I’m not the only person talking about making federal regulations smarter. As I noted in my Politico piece last week, the Regulatory Accountability Act would make agencies take the costs and benefits of their regulations more seriously before they finalize them. This is something that the CPSC has not done with rules issued under the Consumer Product Safety Improvements Act, because the Act specifically gave the agency the opportunity to opt out of doing cost-benefit analysis. Happily, one of the chief architects of the CPSIA, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark) has joined with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and others to make sure that the CPSC and other agencies do a better job of considering the impact of rules before they issue them. These two senators take to the pages of Politico to discuss the need for a better regulatory process. As they explain:
Employers…say they would like to expand and add jobs, but the regulatory environment has become too uncertain and costly. Over-regulation now tops the list of ‘most important problems’ faced by small businesses…now is the time to build a more job-friendly regulatory system. This bipartisan blueprint would do just that.
It is unfortunate that the CPSC did not think about minimizing regulatory cost as we busily churned out regulations over the past several years. Maybe that will now change.
Read their piece here.
Regulators need good data to make good policy. As President Obama made clear yesterday in his speech to Congress, it’s important to reform regulations that are “unnecessary or too costly.” He demanded that federal agencies “eliminate rules that don’t make sense.”
But over the last two and a half years, the Commission hasn’t taken the time to make sensible rules. Instead, we crystal-balled benefits and ignored costs that we refuse to measure. And since our rules came into effect, costs for consumers have gone up needlessly as companies pass their costs on or leave markets entirely. These results are unnecessary and do not benefit consumers. We could have minimized them by performing cost-benefit analyses. Today, Politico posted my op-ed explaining in more detail why cost-benefit analysis makes for smart regulation and why the CPSC needs to get back to competent, sensible regulating. You can read it here.
As you turn your calendars, there are a few things you should be keeping in mind. The Commission’s stay on the enforcement of the Third-Party Testing and Certification Rule is gone as of January 1st. So you should make doubly sure that your manufacturing program is in compliance if you make a children’s product that is subject to a testing rule.
And, if you’re a small-batch manufacturer, you should hurry up and sign up on the Commission’s Small Batch Manufacturers’ Registry here to give yourself peace of mind that you are exempt from certain testing requirements until the Commission takes further action.
Finally, and most importantly, in all of the regulations that the Commission has put out over the past two years, we have not given any serious consideration to the cost imposed on the economy. Congress, after hearing some loud complaints, decided to fix that with H.R. 2715, the law passed last summer that requires the Commission to consider ways to reduce the burden of third-party testing, among other things. The Commission published a series of questions on the issue in October, and we asked you for your ideas on the ways the Commission can reduce costs. We need your ideas by January 23rd. So submit your comments here!
I will be pushing internally to make sure that the staff and the Commission give serious, thoughtful consideration to the ways we can reduce costs, and your ideas in particular. But we can only be successful in reducing costs if we get serious—and perhaps out-of-the-box—ideas from you on how we can best achieve those reductions. So, please, help us ensure product safety in the most rational, cost-effective manner possible; send us your comments!
If you head over to reason.com, you’ll find a column by A. Barton Hinkle that deftly clarifies what the debate is really about when CPSC (or any other agency) is thinking about regulating something. The argument isn’t about whether or not regulations should exist at all or whether our modern lives need any rules. Clearly, they do.
The debate is about where to draw the line. Hinkle writes, “if a . . . rule can prevent 1 million birth defects at a cost of only one dollar, then the regulation merits adoption—and if a regulation would prevent only one birth defect at a cost of $100 trillion, then it does not. In the real world regulations fall within narrower parameters.”
That is where our focus has to be at every Commission meeting. We need to take a regulatory Hippocratic Oath: “Do more good than harm.” Sometimes, that goal will rest on the broad question, to regulate or not to regulate. Most often, however, it will depend on how we choose to regulate and how carefully we draw the lines.
As an example, look at our debate back in July on whether to lower the lead standard for children’s products down to 100 parts-per-million—that is 99.99% lead free. Common sense and the language of the law that required that debate suggested we should look at different kinds of products differently and add a degree of practicality to our decision. Lead in a doorknob and lead in a pacifier are two very different things.
Instead of recognizing that and actually digging into the real problem, we treated the entire universe of children’s products with one heavy hand. We reached for our largest regulatory hammer instead of a scalpel, and we shifted even more costs to businesses when we glibly told them that, if they wanted an exemption, they should come beg us to do the compartmentalized analysis we should have done up front. The result will be more money—and maybe more jobs and companies, too—lost to nothing but process. We could have avoided that result by using our expertise and resources to do the legwork on our own.
I hope we’ll do the hard work in the future, rather than hiding clumsy solutions behind emotional strawmen and cute catchphrases. I hope we’ll listen to the voice of reason.
As you get started on your holiday shopping this weekend–Black Friday and Cyber Monday are upon us–you’ll want to keep your eyes open for a lot of things: a great deal, that can’t-miss gift, a parking spot that isn’t in the next county. There are, however, some other things you’ll need to keep an eye out.
- Look out for drawstrings on children’s clothes. They can easily get caught in playground equipment, furniture, or other objects and pose an entrapment or strangulation hazard. Earlier this year, at my urging, CPSC found that neck drawstrings in children’s clothes sized 2T to 12 are substantial product hazards. They shouldn’t be on the shelves anymore. If they are, they certainly shouldn’t be on your children.
- When you’re choosing toys and clothes, make sure they’re age appropriate for the child. Working with CPSC and industry groups, manufacturers have gone to great lengths to decide the right age range for their products, and those should be noted right on the packaging. Look for the label and take it seriously.
- A big part of those ratings is choking hazards. Always remember one simple rule: If kids can put something in their mouths, they will. Make sure toys for younger children do not have small parts that can easily pop off or break off. Small magnets and tiny button batteries pose special hazards. If swallowed, magnets can stick together inside the body and injuries like punctured intestines or blood poisoning can result. Button batteries, if swallowed, can also result in severe internal injuries.
- If a new TV is on your list, look for a good, safe place to put it. Children have been injured and killed from TVs tipping over and falling on them. A professionally-installed wall mount might be the best plan, but, if your new set will be standing on furniture, make sure to pick up some anchor straps. They’re an inexpensive way to prevent an unimaginable tragedy.
- If you’re picking up a tree to put those goodies under, keep a few things in mind. For natural trees, green is good. Not only will a fresher, greener tree look and smell nicer for longer, it will also be less of a fire risk. For artificial trees, look for “Fire Resistant” on the label. For either kind of tree, keep it away from heat sources.
- When you’re putting the lights up, check them for bare wires, loose connections, or cracked or broken sockets. If it’s time to replace them, look at the labels. Make sure they’re lab tested and make sure they’re certified for the use you’re planning: Outdoor displays need outdoor lights.
- Finally, if a power outage turns a bright holiday into a dark one, use care when you pick your solution. Keep candles away from flammable surfaces, and do not use a generator indoors. The carbon monoxide fumes can build up and suffocate quickly.
As much as CPSC, manufacturers, and retailers have worked , and continue to work, to make every product on the shelves as safe as it can be, there will always be some risks, and people will make some mistakes. We have put out a lot of new rules this year, and, while I haven’t agreed with all of them, I will always support the goal of making products safer. But safety is a joint effort shared by regulators and consumers. In many ways, you can do more to keep your family safe than my colleagues and I ever could, just by staying informed and making sound, responsible decisions.
The holiday season should be a time for family and fun, not emergency room visits or worse. A little information and a good dose of caution can help ensure your holiday is a safe and happy one. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and a safe and joyful holiday season!
If you’re a close watcher of the CPSC Commissioner’s Statements page (and, really, who isn’t?) you may have noticed that my good friend and colleague Commissioner Adler and I have had another round on our perpetual motion statement ride. Back when we took the vote on our lead standard, we got a glimpse of this dynamic, as Commissioner Adler waited a couple weeks after the vote and my written statement explaining my vote, then issued a statement of his own, directly attempting to rebut the arguments I made in my statement. He has done the same thing with respect to the recently-issued Testing Rule. We are now on our third round of statements responding to each other.
As I have pointed out, I believe that the purpose of a commissioner’s written statement is to explain why a commissioner voted in a particular way. If we use our statements as vehicles to respond to arguments made in other written statements, then the commissioner who writes last has the last word. By using statements to explain ourselves, rather than directly to rebut others, we can guarantee that we do not find ourselves where we are now, trapped on a spinning merry-go-round.
Commissioner Adler does not share this view. In his most recent addition to the dialogue, he explained his rationale. He views these statements as an opportunity for “robust discussion and debate on the critical policy issues that come up before the Commission.” Discussion and debate are wonderful things, but, with all due respect, the time for them is before a vote. That way, the discussion actually has a chance to shape the policy issues. Statement after statement after the fact provides no such opportunity. It risks becoming repetitive very quickly with the potential for descending into the petty.
The astute reader will no doubt be asking why I have responded to Commissioner Adler’s statements—both the Supplemental and the Further Supplemental—if I believe the entire exercise is such a misuse of the forum. The answer is simple: Unilateral disarmament may be noble, but it looks the same as surrender. If I don’t respond to Commissioner Adler’s arguments, no matter how fallacious they are, it will appear that I have conceded them. That is not so, and it would be inconsistent with my public policy role to allow such a misconception to exist.
That reality—that a Commissioner cannot let the conversation be one-sided, even if she feels it is hopelessly misplaced—is precisely why the CPSC statement format works best when it is kept to an explanation of the author’s perspective and decision. If we all stick to that approach, we give the public a clear, concise view of the arguments surrounding each CPSC action (or inaction) and an opportunity to provide informed comment on future debates on similar issues. If just one of us abandons this approach, we will all be inevitably sucked into a potentially endless exchange that leaves the reader confused, annoyed, or both.
I love Lambchop, but The Song That Never Ends is best sung on children’s television, not by the leadership of a Federal agency.
Yesterday, with little fanfare, the agency posted in the Federal Register an announcement that we invite comments from the public on ways to reduce the costs of third-party testing of children’s products required under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. This inquiry is mandated by a new law (H.R. 2715) passed by Congress this past summer. After reviewing the comments we receive, we may either implement cost-saving changes to our regulations and/or report to Congress on additional authority we need to reduce costs. This new law explicitly acknowledges what our staff economists have told us—third-party testing by outside labs is very expensive and will result in increased costs and reduced choices for consumers.
I remain hopeful (call me naïve!) that, with this push from Congress, my colleagues will finally get serious about addressing the costs of the CPSIA in an honest and forthright manner. However, the recent vote on the Testing Rule, which imposes expansive and expensive third-party testing requirements beyond what is required by statute, may show this hope is misplaced. Today I filed a supplemental statement describing why I believe that the CPSIA does not require that all periodic continuing testing of children’s products needs to be done by a third-party lab. Had my colleagues adopted this interpretation, testing costs would have been lowered without sacrificing safety and without the months of staff time the majority’s piecemeal approach will require.
I challenge readers of this blog to respond to the Federal Register request with comments on how to lower testing costs. Be creative and constructive in your comments! All suggestions will be read and considered, and I will be pushing my colleagues and our staff to actually think about ways to drive down costs and adopt the best ideas we get.
One of the key roles for the CPSC is to educate consumers about safety in their daily lives, ranging from Halloween costumes and holiday lights to carbon monoxide from generators and cribs with faulty parts. I am alarmed, then, that the agency’s leadership apparently decided to put process before safety when it comes to window blinds.
For many years, the CPSC co-sponsored National Window Covering Safety Month with the Window Covering Safety Council (WCSC). (This is one of the many cooperative safety efforts the agency co-sponsors with outside groups on a regular basis.) With more than two billion window coverings in American homes, it is imperative to educate consumers about reducing accidents related to this widely-used consumer product. The risk is that small children may become entangled in window-covering cords and strangle. The CPSC did not collaborate with the WCSC on this important message this year.
I disagree with this decision for two key reasons. First, some speculate that the agency’s leadership did not want to associate the agency with the WCSC because the ANSI standard-writing process was supposedly not moving in the right direction. But the WCSC is an independent group of manufacturers, retailers, and importers and is not involved in developing the standards at ANSI. So not collaborating with the WCSC on general safety messages appears counter-productive and unjustifiably punitive.
Second, the new standards will not deal with any risk that may exist with the vast majority of already-installed window coverings. In light of this, shouldn’t we use every major communication tool to inform consumers how to safely use window coverings currently in place?
People should be outraged if government information that might prevent an injury or death is not fully disseminated because of concerns about who has what position on writing a future product safety standard. Consumer safety should not be held hostage.