Archive for the 'safety' Category

Closing the Books on 2016

This is a time for reflection.  Looking back on the past year, it really was not a great
one for the CPSC. And, sadly, many of the agency’s problems closing-bookswere of its own making. While many of the initiatives that are either ongoing or started in 2016 will continue into 2017, others will be consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas.  And most importantly, 2017 will bring new leadership and with it fresh ideas and perspectives to address the important and complex issues with which the agency must struggle as it works to fulfill its mission to protect consumers from unreasonable risks.
From my perspective, as a past regulator and now as a practitioner trying to help those in the regulated community who sincerely want to stay on the right side of the compliance line but who find that line often moves or disappears altogether, here are some areas where the agency fell down and one hopes could do better next year.

  • A penalty policy that hardly qualifies as any kind of rational “policy” at all. The agency rewrote the regulation dealing with the factors to be considered when applying penalties back in 2009 to give more transparency to the process. Instead, the process has become anything but transparent. Agency enforcement staff has made clear that it has little interest in negotiations over penalty amounts, which is where the application of the penalty factors would come in.  Current agency leadership has stated that its penalty policy is “more is better.” In trying to appear as a tough cop, the agency instead comes across as a bully.  While that result may be an effective scare tactic, it serves to drive away companies who might otherwise seek out the agency when potential problems arise and does not help to advance collaborative problem solving which the agency needs to advance its mission.  Much has been written about the agency’s shortcomings in this area and let’s hope that 2017 brings about needed change here.
  • An “ends justifies means” mentality that allows for skirting regulatory fairness and due process. Or put another way, government always knows best. What better illustration of this attitude than the agency’s attempts to regulate small rare earth magnets (SREM’s). Even though the industry leaders proposed a collaborative effort to regulate warnings and packaging of the product back in 2011, the agency rejected that offer and instead, through recalls and regulation, acted to ban the product.  The last hold-out, a tiny U.S. company in Colorado—Zen Magnets–has consistently been prevailing in court against the full force of the U.S. Government.  In the meantime, Chinese imports of SREM’s are being sold without any effort by the CPSC to crack down.  I guess that the CPSC thinks that only magnets sold by U.S. companies are dangerous. Certainly magnets present a hazard if swallowed.  However, they can be used safely in many different art, science, educational and recreational applications.  Perhaps in 2017, the agency could consider how to step back from a ban to a regulation that allows the product into the market while providing the kind of warnings and child-proof packaging that alerts parents to the hazards the product presents if swallowed by small children.
  • Will the agency consider applying modern regulatory concepts to rule writing to assure they are effective? In a recent statement, Commissioner Mohorovic is critical of the agency’s purported effort review its standard dealing with mattress flammability.  This review is required by the Regulatory Flexibility Act which mandates review of significant rules every 10 years and the mattress rule falls into that definition.  Even though the staff found that the rule was not as effective in protecting the public as the agency had predicted when it was issued 10 years ago, it did not recommend changes.  This is just one example of the agency’s reluctance to go back to see if what it is doing is really working to protect consumers.  Commissioner Mohorovic’s suggestion that a retrospective review plan be built into rules as they are being developed is a good one and would help assure that the rules the agency writes actually provide the protection the agency says they will.  To date, agency leadership has only given lip-service to the suggestion but has done nothing real to effectuate such a plan.  Perhaps in 2017, this will change.
  • Will 2017 bring some closure to the never-ending dithering on upholstered furniture flammability regulation? For a while in 2016, it looked like Commissioner Buerkle had found a path forward for addressing upholstered furniture smoldering hazard, but that was not to be. Instead, a majority of the commissioners decided that virtually every flammability hazard needed to be regulated so are now looking at how to address the hazard of large open flame fires  where upholstered furniture is not necessarily the first ignition source but could possibly be the second or even the third source of ignition.  To do this, commercial grade materials, expensive barriers and flame retardants will necessarily be part of the equation. In the meantime, pending before the agency is a petition to ban flame retardants.  Boy, what a mess! A consumer rebellion may be on the way!
  • We started the year with flaming hover boards and ended it with flaming cell phones—both caused by lithium ion batteries. Rather than looking at the application first, would it not be better to start by looking at the batteries? The agency seems to be going about this from the wrong direction.
  • A continual point of concern for agency stakeholders is a communications and press office that makes policy rather than communicates it. In the meantime, complaints are common about press releases that contain inaccuracies or are held up for trivial reasons, thereby delaying recalls. This result directly impacts consumer safety, cannot be defended, and yet is occurring.  Again, room for improvement in 2017.

I could go on and on but 2017 is just around the corner.  Change will not happen immediately but is inevitable.  Working together and in a spirit of support for the agency, 2017 can be a great year for the CPSC. What a happy thought to take us all through the holidays and into next year!

 

Let’s Play Penalty Roulette

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Playing games at the CPSC

Commissioner Mohorovic has just issued a thoughtful statement discussing the black hole that the CPSC calls its civil penalty policy.  This statement follows another he filed this week discussing the $4.5 million penalty lodged against Sunbeam for a single-brew coffee maker that squirted out hot water when not used properly.

The Commissioner’s most recent statement precedes next week’s agency hearing on priorities for the upcoming year.  He outlines a number of ways to address the process for assessing penalties—a process that, at best, can be called veiled and perplexing and, at worst, seems like penalty roulette.  Those concerned about public policy and consumer protection should carefully review his suggestions for putting more discipline into an arbitrary process.

The CPSC Chairman has publicly stated his desire to see penalties increased.  While disagreeing with that view, I do believe that it could be achieved more effectively if the agency were up-front about how they calculate penalties.  It is not sufficient to say that this calculation is determined by applying the various factors set out in the regulation dealing with civil penalties.  The settlement agreements over the past several years have been decidedly uninformative about how various factors were applied.  As one who was directly involved in crafting that regulation, and as I have written before, I believe that the current practice is at odds with the underlying intent of the regulation—that is, to add more transparency to the process.

Commissioner Mohorovic is to be applauded for his persistence in highlighting the problem.  Not only has he accurately described the problem, he has come up with creative suggestions for solving it.  While Commissioner Buerkle has repeatedly expressed her dismay for the manner in which penalties are assessed, it will be interesting to see if the other commissioners pay any attention.

Last week it was $3.75 million for glass tumblers that can break. This week it is $4.5 million for coffee makers that can spill out hot water if not used according to instructions.  Can’t wait to see what next week brings—but, for sure, it will be a crap shoot.

It’s Not Just Size That Counts

Today, the CPSC announced a civil penalty settlement agreement for an eye-popping $15.45 million.  The settlement involved dehumidifiers sold by Gree Electrical Appliances Inc.  The penalty is the statutory maximum that could be imposed and is well beyond any penalty imposed by the agency at any time in its history.

CPSC alleged that Gree:

  • knowingly failed to report a defect and unreasonable risk of serious injury to CPSC  with dehumidifiers sold under 13 different brand names (the dehumidifiers were recalled in 2013);
  • knowingly made misrepresentations to CPSC staff during its investigation; and
  • sold dehumidifiers bearing the UL safety certification mark knowing that the dehumidifiers did not meet UL flammability standards.

Given the size of the penalty, one should expect that the alleged misconduct to be off-the-charts in terms of the severity of injury to consumers.    Yet, even though the earlier related recall involved well over 2 million items and significant property damage from fires caused by the defective product, there are no reports of injury.  In fact, there is little to distinguish this hazard pattern from others involving defective appliances posing serious fire hazards where penalties have been fractions of the amount imposed in this case. Certainly there was potential for serious injury but the fact remains that there were no injuries.  While there was substantial property damage, presumably this was covered by insurance and it is not the purpose of the CPSC to protect insurance companies.

There is nothing in the agency’s press release or the settlement agreement itself to tell us why this case was so more egregious than other cases involving violations of the requirement to report hazards to the agency.  One has to assume then that it was the alleged misrepresentations to the government and the unauthorized use of the UL mark that bumped the penalty up to the limit.  But other than these general statements and based on what has been made public, it is not clear what actual conduct triggered such a huge penalty.  For those trying to stay on the right side of the law, the government has an obligation to be more transparent in describing the activity that warrants this type of penalty.

Certainly the allegations in the settlement agreement are very serious and, if true, warrant a significant penalty.  But it would be helpful to know whether this penalty is unique to a particular set of circumstances or is just a very large scalp from another “failure-to-report” case. As Commissioner Mohorovic points out in his statement, if the agency wants to change behavior through its penalties, it is important to more fully describe the behavior those regulated should avoid.

While this is a significant case because of the size of the penalty, its importance diminishes because of the agency’s opaqueness in describing the bad acts that occurred.  If you are not confused and troubled by all this, then I suggest you are not paying attention.

 

Does the CPSC See You as a “Bad Guy” or a “Good Guy”?

I believe that it was Albert Einstein who said “What you see depends on where you stand.”  The stands taken by senior managers of the CPSC on a number of topics have changed and that leaves those of us who care both about the agency and consumer safety seeing some concerning developments.

A good example is the way in which the agency seeks to impose and assess penalties.  At one point (dare I say the “good old days”) civil penalties were assessed after an honest negotiation between lawyers for the agency and the company. Only with the most intransigent company did the negotiation break down so that the agency was forced to refer the case to the Department of Justice for resolution.  And in the very rare instances when this happened, it was viewed not as a positive development but as a failure of the process to work well.

Things have changed.  Based on comments made by agency lawyers at a meeting in Washington this past week, what was once viewed as a failure now is viewed, if not quite as a positive development, as at least routine SOP. This conclusion is based on several developments.  First, look at the Enforcement Guidance recently published by the CPSC Office of General Counsel.  It suggests that any penalty negotiation is not a negotiation at all but almost a take it or leave it proposition.  When they say that you should anticipate getting only one meeting to make your case and then they will lock down their decision, how can you infer anything else?  Add to this statements that the penalty initially demanded by the agency already has been vetted with the DOJ and one has to wonder if arguments supporting a differing view will be listened to and considered.

This concern is exacerbated by statements made by senior officials at the same meeting that the agency is exploring ways to publicize referrals to the DOJ, likening them to “grand jury indictments.”   And what to think when another agency official states that penalties are justified because they always are imposed on the “bad guys” and not in “instances where good guys made honest mistakes. . . “.   Add to this a call by the agency chairman for civil penalties in the eight figures during the next year, and what you see is an agency that appears to be punitive rather than collaborative.

It is unfortunate that those regulated by the agency are being lumped into “good guy” and “bad guy” categories. From my experience in the private sector, in different capacities in government and now in private law practice, the vast majority of companies do care about making sure the products they sell are safe and they want clear rules so that they can stay on the right side of the legal line.  They also want a government that will work with them to solve problems when they come up, not just question their judgment and consider them “bad guys” when they protest.  But from my recent conversations, from where many are standing, that is what they are seeing.  For those of us concerned about product safety, that is not a positive development.

“Means are Inconsequential; Only the Ends Matter”

History is replete with examples of bad things that happen when good people, with good motives, act to achieve an end without regard to the means used.  The CPSC’s letter last week to sellers of self-balancing scooters (most of us call them hover boards) brings squarely to mind that Machiavellian notion about ends justifying means.

The agency’s action came in the form of a letter from the acting director of compliance to sellers of hover boards telling them that their products should comply with the newly-released UL voluntary safety standard addressing the risk of fire associated with some of these products. Those products that do not comply with this voluntary standard will be considered by agency staff “to be defective and . . .may present a substantial product hazard,“  thereby triggering the reporting and recall provisions of §15 of the Consumer Product Safety Act and related penalty provisions.  While this may perhaps be a good safety result, the statute sets out a path for achieving this result and that path involves a bit more by way of due process than just issuing a decree to make it so, as seems to have been done here.  That path forward is set out in §9(b) of the Act and instructs the agency on how to rely on voluntary standards to address an established safety risk.

Few would argue against the need to address the safety issues associated with hover boards that have been highlighted in recent months.  And the CPSC is to be praised for its desire to investigate and fashion an across-the-board solution as opposed to its unfortunate recent tendency to regulate class-wide hazards by recall or retailer intimidation.  But no matter how laudable the motives of the agency may be, short-circuiting the statute is never good practice by a regulator.  Yet, in a striking example of ends justifying means, this is exactly what the agency has done.

9(b) of the Act sets out a process for the agency to use when it wishes to rely on voluntary standards to address safety hazards. That process requires the agency to collect and consider public comments before making a final decision to rely on a standard written by a voluntary standards organization. Once the agency uses this process to rely on a voluntary standard, the reporting and related enforcement provisions of §15(b) apply.  This process has rarely been used by the agency.  Why this is true is inexplicable to me. However, its use would have allowed the agency to quickly put in place a regulatory mechanism to address the risks associated with these products in a way that was consistent with the statute and that respected the due process considerations central to good regulatory practice.  Aside from being the right thing to do, it would also bolster the agency’s enforcement position in the (unlikely) event its actions are ever challenged. Instead, the agency acted by fiat to achieve the result §9(b) contemplates without bothering to follow the statute.

Some may argue that these products are so dangerous that the agency needed to act quickly and just could not be bothered to follow the law.  But again, the statute contemplates this type of imminent hazard situation and instructs the agency on the path to follow in such circumstances, a path that also includes due process protections. The statute was written to balance the public’s legitimate safety concerns with the public’s need for procedural protections to assure a just and fair result.  Hop-scotching over the statute, no matter the reason, is not something the federal government should do.

If the Public Doesn’t Buy it, Keep Selling it Anyway

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.

Shihan vs Goliath, Addendum

It is nice to know that folks out there read what I write.  When I started this blog I really wanted to have a conversation with people who are impacted by the actions of the CPSC, both positively and otherwise.  In response to my last blog post, I got a response from Shihan Qu, among others, and I thought I would share his comments.

Shihan takes issue with my notion that the magnets rule applies only to magnet sets that are intended to be used as adult desk toys and manipulatives.  He reminds me that the final rule blew a hole through this interpretation when the Commission added the phrase “commonly used” to the definition of magnet set.  The definition states “magnets sets are aggregations of separable magnetic objects that are marketed or commonly used as a manipulative or construction item.”  By expanding the definition this way, all powerful small magnet spheres may well end up within this definition since it is the end user, not the manufacturer, who determines whether the product is regulated or not.  One problem is that US based industrial magnet companies who never considered themselves within the definition may well be in for a nasty surprise if their products fall into the hands of the wrong user.

In response to my observation that magnets are easily available for sale online, Shihan responds, “Indeed you can still purchase magnet spheres easily by searching “neocube” or “buckyball” online. The rest of the companies are based in China, and are not easily targeted by the CPSC like we are. As long as there is demand, there will continue to be suppliers who will provide them. What can the CPSC do about them, if anything?”

Finally, I again emphasize that, in its latest action, the CPSC has targeted Mr. Qu personally, as it did when it went after Craig Zucker, in his individual capacity, in the Buckyballs matter.  It seems that the agency is really prickly when it comes to young entrepreneurs who still think that they can challenge the government.  Oh, when will they grow up?!

However, for those who are not willing to accept the notion that the government is always right, this is a troubling development.  And for CPSC attorneys who represent small companies, best let your clients know that, apparently if you want to fight the CPSC, be prepared to put your entire bank account on the line.


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