Archive for the 'Consumer Product Safety' Category

Measure Twice; Cut Once

A couple of years ago, I did an addition to my house.  Everyone who has done this knows the steps.  I sat down with an

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architect to discuss exactly what I wanted to accomplish with the project.   A rough design was done and then refined in a set of blueprints that was put out for bid.  Since my budget was limited, the plans had to be readjusted to fit both my needs and my resources before they could be finalized.  Only then did we go to the relevant regulatory bodies to seek the required permits and approvals to do the project.

I thought of this process last week while I listened to the CPSC Chairman and Commissioners describe their desire to greatly expand the agency’s import surveillance system at an oversight hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.   In 2011, in response to Congressional direction, the agency initiated a pilot program to identify imports that violate safety standards.  The current pilot program subjects certain products from certain countries/suppliers to surveillance prior to import under a computer rule set that predicts the possibility of violations. In other words, the computer looks at what is coming in and, using the rule set, flags those products that should be further examined by CPSC personnel.  As a pilot, it has worked well.  The agency now seeks to extend the program to all imports under its jurisdiction.  Such a program will be expensive and the agency has asked Congress for a significantly increased appropriation to build out the program and the authority to impose user fees on importers as a way to fund the program on a continuing basis.

The agency has a great deal of regulatory housekeeping to do before such a system is feasible.  The program will only work if the agency has the statutorily-required certificates of compliance from importers available in an electronic form.  These electronic certificates will provide the basic information to allow both the CPSC and its sister agency, Customs, to make initial judgments about compliance.  In 2013, the agency proposed to update its rules governing the creation and filing of e-certificates (at 16 C.F.R. §1110).  Unfortunately, the agency, in a good example of “wants” exceeding “needs”, proposed a rule that goes well beyond what is required by the statute, and, if finalized, would require importers to redesign reporting systems and impose many new and costly requirements.  I looked at the cost of the proposed system when I was a Commissioner and using agency estimates, determined that it would cost annually over $400 million – that is almost $1/2 billion—for importers to compile the paperwork to document tests and generate the certificates that reflect those tests. That is a lot of money for paper!

This rule has been one of the most controversial in the history of the agency.  Many comments have been filed and most of them have been critical of the proposed rule.  The agency now proposes to establish a pilot program to see if the rule will work.  Unfortunately, rather than establishing a pilot based on the learning found in the comments to the rule, the pilot will look much like the proposed rule.  And because it is so tied to the expanded import surveillance system, this rule remains on the agency’s near-term agenda for completion.

At the hearing last week, several commissioners discussed the agency’s import surveillance activities.  Chairman Kaye argued that seeking authority to expand its import surveillance activities is consistent both with Congressional desires expressed in the CPSIA and with the Presidential direction for closer coordination among agencies that handle imports.  However, the ever-thoughtful Commissioner Beurkle pointed out that the agency has yet to undertake a requirements analysis to identify the capabilities of an expanded system.  Both she and Commissioner Mohorovic expressed grave concerns about the status and substance of the agency’s proposed rule on electronic certificates with Commissioner Mohorovic suggesting that the agency was greatly underestimating the number of certificates that it would have to process. He also argued that the agency has yet to demonstrate how the rule would improve targeting of violators and suggested that a “trusted trader” program should be part of any final program.    Commissioner Beurkle suggested that an “incremental” approach to building out the system was a more prudent one than what the agency proposed.

While the Senate Committee did not dwell on the subject of user fees, there were differences of opinion both on the Committee and among the commissioners.  Again, Chairman Kaye voiced strong support for the notion of user fees to fund import surveillance activities while Commissioner Beurkle expressed concerns about the wisdom and the constitutionality of such a system.

It seems pretty apparent that the agency has much more planning to do before it should get the permits to build out this addition to its regulatory house.  The fact that so much of the planning and preparatory work that needs to proceed such a program is still “under construction” should give policy makers pause.  And the issue of how to fund the program does raise many policy issues.  User fees have a certain attractiveness and have been used before.  But the policy and legal implications of such an option should be more fully explored.  In this regard, last month the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center published a study looking at the on-budget cost of regulations.  Among other things the study found that “in general, agencies that are at least partially funded by fees on the entities they regulate continue to grow at a faster rate than those that depend on appropriations from general funding” and that “agencies with independent funding authority will have significant increases in their outlays over the two-year 2015-2016 period.”  While this may or may not be a bad or a good result, it is something that should be understood before Congress, the agency and its stakeholders go down this road.

Planning is important.  It appears that the agency needs to work on its blueprint before it jumps into this new undertaking, not matter how important.

Penalty Factors Ought to Mean Something

For some time the product safety bar has been concerned about the apparently arbitrary manner in which penalties are assessed at the CPSC.  In 2010 the Commission adopted a rule that set forth the factors that must be considered in determining how penalties are assessed.  Unfortunately, since then, the agency has given only the slightest head-nod to these factors and has not applied them in any kind of rigorous, disciplined, or transparent manner.  Yet such transparency is important in helping the regulated community better understand how the agency defines the concept of “substantial product hazard” which is at the center of most penalty matters.

The problem with the Commission’s approach is well-illustrated by the $3.4 million settlement recently negotiated with Office Depot.  This case involved 1.4 million office chairs sold by the retailer over a ten year period.  Over those ten years, the company received 153 incident reports with 25 reported injuries only some of which required medical attention.  Commissioner Mohorovic has written a thoughtful statement in which he does apply the Commission’s penalty factors to this case.  His conclusion is that had the penalty factors actually been properly applied, the resulting penalty should have been much lower.  His statement is well worth reading.

The current chairman and former acting chairman have made public statements that penalties should, as a matter of course, increase across the board to reflect their view of Congressional intent in increasing the agency’s penalty authorities.  If it is going to be agency policy to push for increased penalties, then the agency owes it to the public to have a more transparent process for imposing penalties.  As Commission Mohorovic notes, currently there is little coherence in the agency’s approach to penalties. As a consequence, parties before the agency are left to struggle with an opaque process where the rules are written after the fact.  Such a result is bad public policy.

The Real World Speaks; The Government Does Not Hear

Last week I traveled to St. Louis University to speak to students attending the school’s Product Safety Managementst-louis-cityscape Course.  This executive education course is presented by the Center for Supply Chain Management Studies at the Cook School of Business at the University and is unique in presenting a concentrated focus on product safety-related issues.  I was asked to discuss how the CPSC is organized and how agency policy and decisions get made and I discussed my perspectives, as a former commissioner, on the agency’s seemingly more contentious and less collaborative approach to product safety.

The class was made up of professionals from small, medium and global businesses with backgrounds that included law, engineering, business and science. The joy of opportunities like this is not only having several hours with engaged and very smart professionals in the classroom, but also having time outside of class to interact informally.  While I hope I imparted knowledge, I know that I learned a great deal.

Boiling it down to a sentence, here was my message to the class:  The CPSC is moving to more aggressive and expansive regulations and more aggressive and punitive enforcement.  For companies that want to stay out of the agency’s sights, they should consider, among other things,

  • implementing strategies to update and fine-tune their compliance programs;
  • making sure that they have appropriate written procedures for addressing safety complaints and can demonstrate those procedures are followed;
  • having and being able to show good control over their supply chain;
  • keeping good records to show a testing program, test results and compliance with applicable regulations; and
  • registering for the Business Portal of the Public Database as one device to know what some consumers are saying about their products.

Of course, safety must always be a core value of the company, and at all levels, including senior management.  Unless that is true, none of these efforts will be truly effective in minimizing a company’s exposure.

I also learned a great deal from the students.  One message especially resonated since it came from several different class members from different types of companies.  These students described the importance their companies placed on regulatory compliance in the face of very constrained resources.  They described the challenges of complying with different regulatory approaches to addressing the same risks, on local, state, national and international levels.  They described different testing methods to measuring compliance—tests mandated by regulatory bodies in the U.S and abroad and by cautious retail customers who want to assure that the CPSC does not appear on their doorstep and have the market power to make those tests happen—with all these tests differing one from the other.  The complaint I heard was that there is an expectation of compliance with no realistic understanding of the level of resource needed for full compliance, given the complexity of the myriad rules that have now been issued.  Nor is there any effort, or feeling of responsibility, on the part of the government to simplify those rules to make them less burdensome so that compliance can be more realistically achieved.

Bottom line from my Midwest journey:  The real world speaks but the government does not hear.

Phthalates NPR: A No-Win for CPSC

Assuming that the Commission does not vote to again extend it, the period for filing comments on its proposal to permanently ban certain phthalates closes in a few days.  At that point the monkey will be really on the back of the agency and none of its choices are very good.

Because the way the statute was written, the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) that Congress directed the agency establish to study the health effects of phthalates, without strong direction from the management of the agency, easily could move into policy issues and this is what has happened with its recommendations.  If the agency holds with the recommendations of the CHAP, it faces sure, and probably successful, litigation at the end of the process.  If it tries to walk back the CHAP recommendations, it gets accused of disregarding “scientific” recommendations protecting children. A real no-win for the agency.

I have written before in this blog about the serious regulatory policy issues that the phthalates rulemaking raises.  For those who are interested in this issue and those who are concerned about the use of cumulative risk assessments, I wanted to bring to your attention an article I authored that appeared today in The Hill Congress Blog publication.  You can find it here.

Should Congress decide to do oversight of the CPSC, there are a number of issues that need examining.  This issue should be added to the list.

Note to CPSC: You Really Dropped a Stitch Here!

I am a knitter.  Knitting teaches patience and is a great way to pass time on an airplane.  While traveling, I missed a recent CPSC recall and am thankful to my friendclip-art-knitting-981445 Lenore Skenazy, the author of the blog Free Range Kids, for bringing to my attention important information about a silent killer—yarn.  Since she said it better than I could, the following is from her blog post:

Gracious me! This brand of yarn can unravel! Have you ever heard of such a thing? It’s just too scary! How irresponsible can a yarn maker be? No wonder the Consumer Product Safety Commission just issued this dire warning:

Name of Product: Bernat Tizzy Yarn

Hazard: In finished knit or crochet items, the yarn can unravel or snag and form a loop, posing an entanglement hazard to young children.

Incidents/Injuries: Bernat has received two reports of children becoming entangled from unraveling or snagging yarn blankets. No injuries have been reported.

Remedy: Consumers should immediately stop using the yarn or finished yarn projects, keep them out of the reach of young children, and contact Bernat for a full refund.

Remember! Children are only safe near items that can never unravel or make a loop. Kindly avoid all necklaces, ponytails, jumbo rubber bands, snakes, shoelaces, licorice whips, octopi, thread, phone cords, scarves, kites, jump ropes, taffy (long form), fishing line, string cheese, and, of course, marionettes. – L.

What is the agency thinking?  While unraveling yarn may be a quality problem (for the company to address with unhappy customers), turning a quality problem into a safety issue takes the agency way outside its mandate.

In an earlier post I addressed my concern that silly recalls can serve to make consumers stop listening.  This certainly qualifies as a silly recall. Consumer safety is not advanced by such a result.  However, if the agency persists in pushing its mandate so that product quality problems are viewed as safety issues warranting a recall, what unravels is any predictable definition of a safety hazard and then safety becomes what the agency says it is at any given time. Now that is a snag folks should be worried about.

Retailer Reporting: Something for Nothing?

Over ten years ago, the CPSC compliance staff negotiated an agreement with Wal-Mart that has grown over the years into what is now known as the retailer reporting policy. Under the agreement, Wal-Mart agreed to file weekly reports with the CPSC documenting safety issues reported to its stores about products it sold. This reporting gave the agency important insights into the range of safety issues the world’s largest retailer was seeing. It allowed the agency to get an early heads-up on potential safety issues before they matured into “substantial product hazards.” And Wal-Mart got some protection from allegations that it had failed to report substantial product hazards to the agency.

Because this was such a win-win for both the agency and the company, other large retailers and then several large manufacturers soon began asking to participate in the program as well. In response, the agency expanded the program over the years. However, several years ago, the retailer reporting program was put on hold.

The agency staff has now decided to revise the program. Only selected companies will be “invited” to participate. The revised program makes very clear that participation in the program does not provide a substitute for or otherwise impact any reporting requirements under Section 15(b) of the law. However “consideration” may be given to participating companies should they be faced with subsequent enforcement actions for failure to report. The confidentiality protections applying to Information submitted under Section 15(b) of the law would not apply to these reports.

The staff believes that these changes make the program more transparent and answer long-standing questions about how the program operates. That is certainly true. But the changes also raise several other questions as well. For example, the selective nature of the program and the “consideration”, if any, given to participants does raise troubling fairness issues,  A company wishing to participate and frozen out of the program will have little recourse in challenging the decision of some invisible staffer. What kind of consideration will be available to some but not others?

But more basically, the changes raise the question of why any company should bother to participate. When I raised that question, when I was still a Commissioner, the answer I got was “that it is the right thing for companies to do.” Perhaps there are companies who will find the CPSC staff “invitation” irresistible. (I assume that there will be no measure of bullying associated with these invitations.)  However, there may be others who believe that the effort involved and the benefits to be gained are not worth it. In this case the agency will lose out on an important source of information that could help it identify risks as they come up over the horizon.

However, the biggest concern is a process one. The program has been in place for over ten years. Although it was initiated by the staff, it has grown over the years and it has consumed considerable staff resources. Changes of this magnitude should be placed before the Commission for explanation and approval in a public meeting. The program’s role in gathering useful information should be better explained and it should be part of the agency’s annual operating plan. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the program and the changes being made, this is something that Commissioners should consider and approve, not delegate to staff.

Shopping the Global E-Mall, Round 2

In my last post, I discussed the growing phenomenon of e-commerce sales directly to consumers from foreign (Chinese) manufacturers. My concern is that the regulatory stance of the CPSC—asserting that a foreign manufacturer is legally responsible for compliance with all U.S. safety standards when a U.S. consumer buys a product directly from that manufacturer—is both naïve and unenforceable.

Therefore, I was interested to see the announcement last week from the CPSC that it has entered into a voluntary agreement with Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce direct sales company, to work with the agency to try to monitor its platforms for dangerous products.  Kudos to the agency for negotiating this agreement, as modest as it is.

According to press reports, Alibaba handles more e-commerce business than Amazon.com and eBay Inc. combined and, as a platform for third parties, it controls as much as 80 per cent of the Chinese e-commerce business.  Obviously, Alibaba can be a potent ally in policing the marketplace for unsafe products.

Looking at the reported details of the agreement, it is not clear whether it will prove to advance consumer safety in the global e-mall or merely serve as a fig leaf to which the parties can point to show they are doing something.  Alibaba has apparently agreed to block sales of up to 15 recalled products upon request from the CPSC.  Since a substantial number of the over-400 recalls the CPSC does each year are of products from China, there should be no problem finding candidates for this list.  All concede that this agreement is not enforceable. It remains to be seen how aggressive Alibaba will be carrying it out over time.

More interesting is the company’s agreement to make available information about safety requirements to importers into the United States.  U.S. safety requirements are not easily understood, especially those issued since 2009 in response to the CPSIA—see the labyrinthine regulations dealing with testing and certification for examples. Any way to get information to those who are honestly trying to comply can do nothing but help.

Whether this agreement is a modest, but effective first step or just another counterfeit product remains to be seen.  Stay tuned.


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