Through all the controversial statutory and regulatory changes that have occurred at the CPSC over recent years, the product recall has remained the most reliable mechanism to provide consumers protection from hazardous products that find their way into the marketplace and into their homes. When I was a commissioner, I was both impressed and proud of the herculean work that the agency compliance staff did to identify the true hazards warranting recalls and to winnow out the incidents that did not warrant further investigation or action.
But a recall will not accomplish its purpose unless the consumer pays attention and either takes advantage of the remedy being offered or otherwise alters behavior to avert the risk. And consumers will not pay attention if they think that recalls do not affect them, are of no consequence, or, worse, are just silly. And, if they think that, they will be less likely to pay attention in the future.
This past week, I was traveling abroad, and being stuck in an airport with limited reading material, I read the recent CPSC recall press releases. One caught my eye, but because I was several time zones away from Bethesda, MD, I could not call anyone at the agency or any practitioners in Washington to ask about it. In other words, I was just an average consumer reading the recall notice.
The recall involved a small folding table that was being recalled because it collapsed when sat upon. The company reported that four consumers sustained injuries after the tables collapsed when the consumers sat on the table tops. Note that the recalled products are tables, not chairs or benches; they are designed to hold plates and glasses, not people’s derrieres. From the picture in the press release, these are the kind of small tables that are pulled up beside a chair to hold a plate or glass and then are folded away when not needed.
Apparently four consumers misused the product and were injured as a result. Foreseeable consumer misuse can be a justification for a recall. The agency has not really defined when consumer misuse will justify a recall but hauls that rationale out when needed. Is four consumers being injured by sitting on what is clearly a small table foreseeable consumer misuse or is it just four consumers acting without care or perhaps negligently? Does this matter in the agency’s eyes?
And why would the company agree to do such a recall? Perhaps given the hostile climate at the agency right now, it is easier and cheaper to just do a recall than to risk an investigation and the threats of seven or eight figure penalties because four people were injured sitting on a table you sold. But while this rationale may be understandable, it leads to recalls of dubious merit. And consumers may stop listening.
It used to be that the agency did not accept such recalls but times have changed. With this recall, it would appear that now almost any misuse can justify a recall and this seems to be a pretty broad expansion of the notion of foreseeable consumer misuse. But that is only how it looks to this average consumer.