Last week veteran staffer Marc Schoem announced he is leaving the agency to become the Executive Director of the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization (ICPHSO). Marc has been at the CPSC almost from the beginning and served in many capacities, but really made his mark in the Office of Compliance. While we all know that no one is irreplaceable, it is hard to imagine the CPSC without Marc Schoem.
I have often disagreed with the direction the political leadership has steered the agency. Yet I have also seen how the dedicated career staff works hard every day to keep the agency on course in spite of the changing political forces that buffet it. Marc exemplifies the best in federal service. He served as a mentor to young compliance officers and provided important leadership to the office. His common sense and practical approach to problem solving was very helpful to me when I served as a CPSC commissioner. And his vision and hard work as a board member helped ICPHSO become the important organization it is today. While Marc will be missed at CPSC, he will continue to play an important role in advancing consumer safety.
Today, the CPSC is reannouncing a recall because the original announcement garnered such a low response rate—under one percent. Today’s action and the original recall – done in May, 2014—illustrate how the agency overuses and misuses the recall system.
Here’s the background. In May, 2014, the agency announced a recall of portable adult bed handles used to assist getting in and out of bed. According to the agency release, the bed handles could shift and create a gap with the mattress; three individuals in adult care facilities became entrapped and died in the gap between the mattress and the handle. The agency is concerned about 113,000 bed handles manufactured between 1994 and 2007. The remedy that the agency proposed is for those who have the bed handles to contact the company to get a set of straps (and 3 pages of instructions) to use to hold the handles in place. And, yes, did I mention that they also get a sticker to put on the handle to remind them to use the straps?
The agency has taken a business-as-usual, cookie-cutter approach to a problem that needs more creative thinking to solve. The home health care and adult care industries have traditionally not been ones that have had to deal with the CPSC. And while greater availability of products in the general marketplace makes for greater responsibility on the part of providers, safety regulators also have a role to play in reaching out to those it newly seeks to regulate. Efforts to craft a safety standard for this product have now been over two years in the making, so writing a standard apparently is not necessarily an easy undertaking. In the meantime efforts to encourage an industry safety campaign to educate caregivers—perhaps even giving out safety straps where needed–could go a long way to addressing the risks the agency has identified. But up to now the agency has been absent on that front. [Commission Adler and I will be on a program before the home health care industry next month addressing some of these issues.] My point is that such an educational program would reach more caregivers in a more effective way than the 2014 press release and today’s reannouncement. Yet, the CPSC is wedded to the notion that only a recall and press release will suffice, in spite of evidence to the contrary.
The recall is trying to reach products that are quite old. The newest bed handles subject to the recall have been in the market for at least eight years and who knows how many are still being used. The remedy that is proposed also appears to be somewhat hard to accomplish and that may also explain why so few people have responded. The statute states that a recall remedy shall be a “repair”, a “replacement”, or a “refund”; it does not say a “re-jiggering.” Yet, that is what this feels like.
The CPSC has overused the recall device to the point that even when the agency yells, often people don’t listen. It has underused its ability to take on safety campaigns, either solely or in cooperation with other allies who could help it leverage its resources and broaden its reach. That is too bad.