Archive for July, 2014

When Reality Creeps Into Paradise

For fly fishermen, paradise has to be defined as casting for salmon in the pristine rivers and “loughs” of Ireland.  As a novice angler, I got a taste of paradise this past week fishingwhen I tried my hand “dapping” for salmon in a beautiful but utterly remote area of Connemara in western Ireland. (The salmon were quite safe while I was in the river.) At a totally-off-the-beaten-track fishing lodge, I meet an American couple who were also seeking a quiet corner of paradise.  As we talked, they told me they had sold their business and were taking a bit of time to decompress.  That is when reality came creeping in.

This couple had for many years imported toys which they sold in retail stores they owned in the middle and western part of the country. They also designed toys which were manufactured to their specifications in China and other parts of Asia for sale in their stores. With my gentle prodding, they told me that they took pride in being in compliance with all safety regulations and had never had a safety-related problem with any toy they designed or sold. They told me how much they loved their business and the joy their products brought to their customers.
When I asked them why they decided to sell their business, they said that they got out because of Proposition 65 and the CPSIA.  I was very surprised that they specifically mentioned those two laws so I pressed them further. They said testing and regulatory compliance costs had impacted the viability of the business.  This was exacerbated by marketplace confusion with complex regulations that were impossible to comply with with any certainty. They made a decision that they could not–and would not–deal with the potential compliance liability that the U.S. regulations had imposed.
I suppose that some will say that this couple was merely the unfortunate victim of a system designed to make the marketplace safer for all.  To those, I have to point out that the CPSC, in its testing and related regulations, made no attempt to find a balance between imposing regulations that address defined and documented risks as opposed to every conceivable risk, no matter how remote or undocumented, and, thus,  allow those businesses that sell safe products to flourish.  As evidence, just read the regulatory flexibility analysis that the agency economists did prior to promulgation of the testing rule which predicted that the regulation would result in market dislocations. Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, a majority of commissioners soundly ignored that predication. The testing regulation went much broader than the law required or that safety could justify. How does such a result benefit consumers?
I have not been shy in criticizing the inept efforts of the agency to identify and implement ways to reduce the burden of unnecessary testing.  The agency persists in nibbling around the edges of the problem rather than addressing the real problem  which is that the underlying regulations were written too broadly. Perhaps if the agency delays long enough, the casualties will have been taken and there will be no one left standing to complain about regulations that impose undue costs and burdens on American consumers.  But as most fishermen know, the reality is that if you cast too wide a net, you may end up killing more than you catch.
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The Baby and the Bathwater

Former long-time CPSCer and agency executive director Patsy Semple used to regularly remind the staff  to “not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”  In other words, do not, through excessive zeal, eliminate the good while working to eliminate the bad. baby-bathwater

Patsy’s admonishment came to mind when, earlier this week, I read an excellent article by Lee Bishop, a very well-respected practitioner, in the Product Safety Letter.  Here is a link to the article.

Using CPSC published statistics, Lee notes that the number of voluntary Section 15(b) reports (required when a company has reason to believe a substantial product hazard may exist) resulting in a recall has dropped dramatically in 2013 compared to earlier years.  Because these reports are what usually triggers a recall, it is no surprise that the number of recalls has also gone down. Lee catalogues recent agency policy changes that, taken together, have resulted in a more punitive posture on the part of the CPSC. As a result, rather than following the agency advice of “when in doubt, report,” more companies are being cautious about reporting to the agency for fear that a marginal safety issue may be turned by the agency into a big enforcement headache.  Lee concludes that the statistics suggest “more companies appear willing to take the risk of a penalty for late or non-reporting for marginal safety issues over the second-guessing and punitive treatment that are now routine for companies that turn themselves in and volunteer to conduct recalls.”

As one seasoned CPSC staffer told me at a recent event, the focus of the agency is more on finding violations and seeking penalties than on trying to work with product sellers to solve safety problems. This is a short-sighted approach that ignores the fact that product safety can best be achieved when regulators and product sellers work collaboratively to address problems.  It is time for the agency to start paying more attention to the baby and less to the bathwater.

 

Testing Assumptions

This week I had the pleasure of speaking to the leadership and staff of the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation.  The association accredits third party testing laboratories to a wide range of standards including, but not limited to those issued by the CPSC.  My presentation was an opportunity to discuss how the agency has implemented the CPSIA with a special focus on the agency’s testing requirements.  However, this was also an opportunity to have a free-wheeling conversation about the role that testing and testing laboratories play, and should play, in product safety.

I asked these experts whether third party testing of children’s products was the most effective way in all cases to assure regulatory compliance.  Interestingly, these representative of the testing laboratories agreed that while third party testing is the most expensive compliance tool, it is not always the most effective tool.  They pointed to the EPA’s green appliance regulations as an example of an effective regulatory regime that does not mandate third party testing. They pointed to NIST’s accreditation of first, second and third party testing laboratories to make the point that it is possible to oversee the integrity of in-house testing.

I pointed to the rule to require warning labels on slings—cloth infant carriers—that the agency plans to proposed next week, asking whether sending slings to a third party testing laboratory to “test” whether the label was correct was an efficient use of resources.  While the audible answer was “probably not”, judging by the body language of the folks in the room, the real answer was “are you kidding me?!”

I asked these experts about whether testing variability occurs among different labs or within the same lab.  The answer I got was “Of course it exists.  Everyone knows that.”  Apparently, everyone but the CPSC. This is an issue I tried to get the agency to address when I was a Commissioner but agency leadership was steadfast in refusing to even see lab variability as an issue.

We talked about the feasibility of laboratories discounting prices to small businesses who are suffering mightily under the burden of CPSC-required testing.  Commissioner Adler has suggested that laboratories do that since the testing requirements of the law and the CPSC regulations have provided laboratories with such a business windfall.  The conclusion of these experts was that this is not a workable option for a wide variety of reasons.

However, we did talk at some length about the role testing laboratories could play in assuring that testing resources are directed at those products that pose the greatest risk and are not wasted on unnecessary testing.  I challenged the industry to participate constructively in suggesting ways to reduce testing burdens beyond the rather unimaginative actions now being taken by the CPSC. While the industry may experience some short-terms gains by a system that requires excessive and burdensome third party testing, everyone, including testing laboratories, benefits from a system that deploys resources efficiently and reduces the costs that product sellers (and consumers) pay to assure safety in the marketplace.

 


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