Archive for February, 2015

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.

Debbie Downer Goes to the Super Bowl?

The spectacle that is the super bowl is for some (including me) as much about the ads as it is about football.  On this day after the big game, the morning talk shows offered up various commentators’ lists of the best and worst of those advertisements.  One ad that seemed to show up on everyone’s worst ad list is the “Make Safe Happen” ad sponsored by Nationwide Insurance.  Even one of my heroines, Lenore Iskenazy, in her Free Range Kids blog, tagged it as the worst super bowl ad.

For the benefit of the maybe ten people in the country not watching the super bowl, this ad featured a child musing about all the things he would not be able to do—learn to ride a bike, fly, get married–because he had died in an accident. Was the ad provocative? Yes.  Did it get people’s attention?  By all means.  Did it highlight an important issue that gets only passing attention from many?   It did.  And I believe that Nationwide deserves praise for its courage in running the ad.

As Nationwide points out in its response to the ad’s critics, “preventable injuries around the home are the leading cause of childhood deaths in America.”  As a CPSC commissioner I saw, first-hand and every day, the tragedies caused by accidents in the home that were entirely preventable.  Shining a light on risks such as accidental drowning and tipping furniture serves as a reminder to all of us that accidents often happen in places where we feel the safest—our homes—and can happen in the blink of an eye and when we least expect it. Getting this reminder from a child who has died brings home with real impact the fact that many of the worst accidents happen to our children.

Some may say that the ad somehow suggests that parents who have suffered these tragedies are to blame for not being careful enough or that these accidents point to the need for more governmental involvement in how we raise our children. Not so. The ad sought to build awareness and awareness is the first step in solving a problem that, as parents, we must address in the way that is best for our own families.


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