Archive for the 'Testing' Category



Unfinished Business

In Washington, sometimes repeating something often enough seems to make it true. We see this phenomenon working in the press stories and speeches marking the CPSIA’s fifth anniversary last month.

Although the law has its strengths and weaknesses, the real story is the unrealistic tack that the CPSC has taken in implementing the CPSIA, changing difficult circumstances into nearly impossible ones. Operating from the assumption that if some regulation is good, then more must be better, the agency embarked on a course that seeks to cover all risks—real, speculative, or imagined—rather than crafting regulations to address known unreasonable risks of injury. That our regulations go well beyond what the new law requires is not a fact that seems to concern us. 

One problem with this approach is how divorced it is from the real world. Our regulations are overly-broad and so ultra-complex that only companies with swarms of lawyers can hope to fully understand and comply with them. Thus questions necessarily arise as to how to truly comply with our regulations. And, of course, those questions have been pouring into the agency.

This issue is brought home by a new report from the Handmade Toy Alliance documenting the experiences of small toy manufacturers and importers under the CPSIA and CPSC’s implementation of it over the past five years. HTA members are those who bring excitement, creativity, and imagination to the world of play. None of the products they make presented the safety issues that prompted the CPSIA. Yet this group has felt the brunt of the law more severely than others. Here are some of their observations about the impact of the CPSC’s implementation of the law:

  • “The [testing] rule overwhelmingly favors large manufacturers at the expense of smaller ones. . . . A small business owner could develop what they believe is a reasonable testing program, but it is unlikely to meet the CPSC’s strict interpretation.” HTA points out that we have designed a rule that tilts to the benefit of the large company and which small companies cannot meet.
  • Due to the onerous nature of the requirements, many small businesses will choose “the path of least resistance—to continue doing what they have done for years to assure they produce a safe product [and] use their experience and wisdom to guide design and manufacture, and [to] form relationships with their customers. . . . [S]ome portions of the requirements are adhered to and others are ignored because of costs and complexity.” In other words, small producers will focus on safety and only selectively comply with those portions of our rules they can meet or understand. Creating rules that do not improve safety but contribute to an approach of selective noncompliance is dereliction of our duty as regulators and stands rational regulatory policy on its head.
  • Further, some “handmade toy makers have simply gone out of business or chosen to make products that are not designed for children because the CPSIA and subsequent relief efforts preserve a hurdle too high for small business to clear.” I wonder why those who are praising the passage of the CPSIA find this to be a good result.

Are these not serious flaws attributable to the CPSIA and the agency’s implementation of it? I believe so and they are compounded by this agency’s unwillingness—through over two years of procrastination—to address the unnecessary burdens of our rules as we were directed to do by the Congress. The public has identified ways to ease the burdens, our staff has identified ways to ease the burdens, and I have even added to the list—yet we have not taken any action to implement concrete suggestions, all the while ignoring congressional directions to take action. The HTA report contains a list of actions the agency could take that would ease the burdens of small producers while maintaining safety.

HTA concludes, “The missteps of a few very large toy companies precipitated regulations which damaged thousands of small and micro U.S. businesses and continues to encumber those that survive. . . . Congress and the CPSC must move forward with meaningful solutions that are funded and given priority.”

I have raised these issues with my colleagues repeatedly (and as recently as this month when we voted on our upcoming regulatory agenda). I have been repeatedly outvoted and told that reducing the burdens of our regulations is not a priority of the agency. Again, I ask, when will we turn our attention to correcting the problems we made?

More Than Just Listening

CPSC recently held a public hearing to get input from stakeholders about its agenda and priorities for FY 2014 and FY 2015. We heard from two panels of consumer advocates and manufacturers’ associations. Many thought-provoking subjects were discussed. I found the topic of child safety in low-income households, raised by the Consumer Federation of America, to be an important challenge to address, not just at CPSC, but across the federal government. (As I have written before in this blog, some of our current policies risk pricing low-income consumers out of safety.)

Two other topics were particularly noteworthy. The Handmade Toy Alliance (HTA) said that signing up for the “small batch manufacturer” registry—exempting them from certain third-party testing requirements—did not substantially ease their burden. Even though they were technically exempt from third-party testing, HTA’s members still must meet various statutory limits and, crucially, are often unable to do adequate testing without engaging third-party testing labs. Further, HTA pointed out the requirement added by the Commission to post on its website the name of every company that received this exemption was a deterrent to companies to participate and thereby have their business data posted. It is no surprise, then, that although we expected upwards of 30,000 companies to sign up, only about 500 are have so far.

Another issue raised by HTA, as well as the Toy Industry Association (TIA) and the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), was the need for CPSC to dedicate resources, pursuant to Congress’s direction in Public Law 112-28, to implement measures that reduce testing burdens while still ensuring compliance with safety standards. To date, the Commission has no specific commitment to action in FY 2014 and FY2015 to reduce testing costs. The Commission previously defeated my amendment which would have allowed for more action.

I hope that we will listen to our stakeholders’ pleas—and Congress’s direction—and do the hard work to improve safety for more Americans while minimizing the burden we place on the American economy.

It’s He-ere . . .

Today, the CPSC’s children’s product periodic testing and certification rule goes into effect. Perhaps the most sweeping rule in the agency’s history, it was spurred by 2008’s Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Even before becoming effective, it has substantially affected the agency, the regulated community, and consumers. Starting today, those effects will grow.

After much debate about its details (more on that shortly), the rule is now the law. It sets massive new requirements for the CPSC’s regulated community. To comply with it, companies and labs should have developed systems and procedures to comply with the new requirements and these should all now largely be in place.

Even so, tweaks to those systems will, of course, be necessary. Some of those changes are things that manufacturers and labs can take care of on their own. Others, however, will probably require attention from agency staff and from the Commission. As you encounter problems with this rule, make sure that the agency and I hear about them. Your voice can make a difference. Already, based on pre-implementation concerns, both Congress and the CPSC have made changes to the rule. And as the rule now goes into effect, we can only expect more concerns to be revealed. When they arise, let us know about them.

Of course, as readers of this blog already know, this rule is not my ideal rule. During the many debates leading up to today, I have already filled enough of this space discussing my disagreements with the Commission’s decisions to belabor them here in any detail. To sum it up, I believe we overstated the necessity for third-party testing, ignored opportunities to make the rule more effective, created “gotcha” traps for companies, and paid lip-service to Congress’s demands that we look to make it less expensive. The result is an unwieldy rule that (because of its name) might make consumers feel safer, but holds only speculative hopes of actually making them safer. All the while, they now have the certainty of fewer choices at higher prices.

Yet, though I remain concerned about the unnecessary damage this rule threatens—and as I continue to work to improve it—make no mistake: It is the law. Companies must heed it even where they disagree with it, and violators should expect a visit from our compliance staff. We have lots of resources for helping businesses understand this rule and how to meet its demands, especially for small businesses. If you have not already figured out your plans for complying with the rule, hurry up and fix that. We surely will all learn a lot along the way, but there is no more time for waiting.

CPSC: NOT a Representative Sample of Good Regulating

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has completed another regulation dealing with the process of testing children’s products: the manner in which companies select the samplesPaperwork-mountain they test. Thanks to Congress, the result is better than it could have been. Thanks to my colleagues, it is not as good as it should have been.

Originally, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), required manufacturers and importers to test “random samples” of their products. We were poised to read the word random with its most pedantic statistical meaning, creating an employment boom for mathematicians.

Many commenters deplored this uber-technical reading of the term, urging that we read it more plainly. Congress agreed, amending the statute to require “representative”—instead of “random”—samples.  So we started our work again, coming up with a rule to tell companies what representative means. The definition we came up with – a selection process that “provide[s] a basis for inferring compliance” even among untested products – seems reasonable enough on its face. What is unreasonable about this rule is that, when read in the context of the periodic testing rule it is amending, at best it is redundant, adding dead weight to the already-unwieldy testing rule. But more likely, it adds new requirements to what is already in the testing rule, although to extent of those requirements will only be fleshed out when we start to bring compliance actions.

What the new rule does add is another peak among the mountains of documentation the testing rule requires. We’re demanding separate recordkeeping for the representative sampling procedure on top of the documentation mandate that already exists for testing. Just two years of this recordkeeping could cost nearly $46 million, in addition to the costs for the rest of the testing rule’s paperwork. And remember, this price tag isn’t for either setting up the testing plan or doing the testing; it’s just for showing the math on the selection process for testing. Did we pause for one second to consider how to reduce the recordkeeping burden? Of course not. Did we give even a passing head nod to the direction the White House gave us this past summer to find ways to reduce recordkeeping burdens? Again, of course not.

At this rate, I expect our rule to require the documentation of the process used to document the selection processes for the documented testing plan will hit the Federal Register shortly. And a tip to traders who follow our regulatory hit parade: It’s a good time to be in the hard drive and paper businesses.

You can read my statement giving further detail to the problems of this rule here.

CPSC & Birthday Suits

Few images in life are more innocently adorable than a toddler scampering about in the buff, enjoying life at its simplest and freest. The good news from the CPSC is that you might be seeing that image a lot more. The bad news is that parents might not have much choice in the matter. (A bit of overstatement I will admit, but the principle holds. See below.) 

As I mentioned last week, at least some apparel manufacturers are opting to exit the children’s market rather than brave our labyrinthine minefield of children’s product rules. These requirements, which are arcane to trained lawyers and incomprehensible to most other people, have also forced micro-businesses focused on children’s clothing to cut back or to shut down completely. Thanks to our staff, we knew this sort of thing was coming, and with little if any benefit, but my colleagues decided to forge ahead anyway.

No one should be surprised when business slows or even stops under a regime in which a company must send out even the safest product for round after round of testing, destroying stacks of samples in the process, to make sure each product complies with rules that may have no real bearing on safety, then fell entire electronic forests to document the process.  After all this a company must still live with the risk that our own post hoc judgment is the final arbiter of whether you tested enough.

The entrepreneurial spirit will keep some business owners searching for a solution. We’ve heard of some small businesses that are banding into buying cooperatives to spread the cost of testing. While it is encouraging that the fierce perseverance of American entrepreneurs will seek to overcome the challenges we throw at them, we should not forget that every dollar these companies spend trying to meet our demands is a dollar they can’t spend on any other part of their business, including research to improve product safety. This is a solution to a problem we caused with our testing rule that, in many respects, was its own solution in search of a problem. We required far more than was necessary to ensure compliance with our safety rules, and we left it to the businesses we regulate to figure out how to make it work.

We’ve already missed several opportunities to fix this. We paid lip service (if even that) to the President’s suggestion that we look in our universe of rules for ones we could stand to lose, and we were too modest in our congressionally-mandated examination of our testing rule, the 300-pound gorilla in our regulations. I hope we’ll heed the cries from the market before they turn to silence and kids’ clothes racks—and kids themselves—are bare.

When Two Times Three Occasionally Equals Seven

Think back to when you took exams in school. Now imagine if your exam was sent to two different teachers of the same subject for grading and you ended up with a passing grade from one and a failing grade from the other. You would rightly wonder what is going on, wouldn’t you? This is the same situation that manufacturers and retailers have to deal with: the same children’s product is tested by two different testing labs and it produces two different test results. Since test results can mean the difference between whether you can legally sell your product or have to destroy it, this is not inconsequential.

The Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) requires that children’s products be tested by a CPSC-accepted third-party laboratory to determine compliance with all applicable regulations.  Congress, concerned about the costs of this testing, asked that we come up with ways to reduce costs. Members of the public have given us comments for reducing the costs of third party testing, and according to studies submitted in several of these comments, it appears standardized testing is not the touted safety panacea due to test result variability.

Below are some problems mentioned in the public comments.

“This represents a major risk for the supply chain if testing in different parts of the world provides different results . . . . The industry experiences test result discrepancy due to different sample preparation methods in laboratories” –Global Apparel, Footwear and Textile Initiative

 “Eight different CPSC-firewalled laboratories found the samples’ lead content to range between less than 50 ppm to 262 ppm . . . .Each laboratory reported different results.
“. . . .
“[N]early 50% of FJATA’s members reported that when products failed, the test results were just over the target limit. In total, almost 90% reported that test results were within 10% of target limits.”
–Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association

“The Commission should take action to establish some statistical level of testing error.  This will help reduce retesting costs and avoid the need to destroy a batch or lot of consumer products that fails by a margin within the statistical level of error.”  –Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc.

These comments and others like them are troubling since they raise basic questions about the reliability of the testing that is a basis for much of our recent regulatory work. We need to recognize the existence of inter-laboratory testing variability and find a solution that is practicable in the marketplace. One way to get at this issue is to publicly recognize a margin of error. By staying silent on this issue, we force businesses to absorb the costs of borderline failed test results. This translates into destroyed product, lost sales, and, ultimately, price
increases for consumers.

I look forward to the staff evaluations on this issue, particularly because they themselves attest to the variability of test results. Staff found certain lead content results “represent the compliance dilemma surrounding any regulatory lead limit” [1]. I hope that we can reform these requirements to remove the confusion and burden our regulations have created.

Reducing Costs of Third Party Testing While Keeping Safety in Mind

Last August, Congress passed H.R. 2715, a reform that required us to seek public comment and to devise concrete steps towards reducing the costs of third-party testing while continuing our safety efforts. I applaud those that took the time and effort to comment; I myself sent a list of recommendations to staff last December.

We have been in the process of reviewing the public comments and we soon expect to get a staff report addressing those comments. There were over 25 commenters from a wide range of industries and organizations and it has been illuminating to see the different issues experienced by both small and large businesses, domestically and internationally. Among several common themes was the overarching message that the costs of third party testing were severely impacting the global supply chain without a commensurate advancement in safety.

Here is a sample of common themes received.

  • Harmonization: One of the largest complaints from the public is the lack of alignment of international, federal, and state standards. That lack of alignment results in higher costs without additional safety.
  • Small Volume Testing: Many companies still endure high testing costs on their small volume productions simply because they fall into the mid-large manufacturer category.  The result? Companies cease to produce small runs, innovation is thwarted, and the consumer faces fewer useful products.
  • Inter-lab Variability: Commenters from several industries reported inaccuracies among laboratory results, especially with such minute levels as the 100 ppm lead requirement.  How is safety advanced when everyone agrees there are continuing discrepancies?
  • Reducing Testing Redundancies: Many large retailers require testing to be done by specific third party testing laboratories. So if a manufacturer sells to five different retailers, then the manufacturer may be required to perform the same exact test on the same exact product five times.
  • Over-defining  Standards: Unnecessary testing has been required due to overreaching, expansive statutory interpretations, including the over-broad identification of children’s product safety rules.

I look forward to the staff recommendations that should address these issues and others raised by the public. It is vital that we examine our regulations to reduce the costs of third party testing in such a way that safety is not compromised.

End Government by Guesswork

Regulators need good data to make good policy. As President Obama made clear yesterday in his speech to Congress, it’s important to reform regulations that are “unnecessary[] or too costly.” He demanded that federal agencies “eliminate rules that don’t make sense.”

But over the last two and a half years, the Commission hasn’t taken the time to make sensible rules. Instead, we crystal-balled benefits and ignored costs that we refuse to measure. And since our rules came into effect, costs for consumers have gone up needlessly as companies pass their costs on or leave markets entirely. These results are unnecessary and do not benefit consumers. We could have minimized them by performing cost-benefit analyses. Today, Politico posted my op-ed explaining in more detail why cost-benefit analysis makes for smart regulation and why the CPSC needs to get back to competent, sensible regulating. You can read it here.

Start Your New Year Off Right

As you turn your calendars, there are a few things you should be keeping in mind. The Commission’s stay on the enforcement of the Third-Party Testing and Certification Rule is gone as of January 1st. So you should make doubly sure that your manufacturing program is in compliance if you make a children’s product that is subject to a testing rule.

And, if you’re a small-batch manufacturer, you should hurry up and sign up on the Commission’s Small Batch Manufacturers’ Registry here to give yourself peace of mind that you are exempt from certain testing requirements until the Commission takes further action.

Finally, and most importantly, in all of the regulations that the Commission has put out over the past two years, we have not given any serious consideration to the cost imposed on the economy. Congress, after hearing some loud complaints, decided to fix that with H.R. 2715, the law passed last summer that requires the Commission to consider ways to reduce the burden of third-party testing, among other things. The Commission published a series of questions on the issue in October, and we asked you for your ideas on the ways the Commission can reduce costs. We need your ideas by January 23rd. So submit your comments here!

I will be pushing internally to make sure that the staff and the Commission give serious, thoughtful consideration to the ways we can reduce costs, and your ideas in particular. But we can only be successful in reducing costs if we get serious—and perhaps out-of-the-box—ideas from you on how we can best achieve those reductions. So, please, help us ensure product safety in the most rational, cost-effective manner possible; send us your comments!

Tumbling into a Registry

Remember when you were a kid and you really wanted nothing more than to go out and play, but your parents said you couldn’t until you cleaned your room? Did you try to get by with just shoving everything in the closet? That worked right up until the door was opened and everything tumbled out, revealing the sloppiness of your effort. Now replace the child with a federal agency, and replace parental orders with congressional mandates. That’s what’s happening at the CPSC.

Like a child who “cleans” his room by stuffing everything into the closet, the CPSC rushed through a congressionally-mandated small-batch–manufacturers registry sloppily and at the last minute. As a result the agency may be failing to protect the very people the registry was supposed to protect. Last week, we finally issued a press release to let small batch manufacturers (SBMs) of children’s products know how they can take advantage of the testing relief Congress provided SBMs last August. Left unclear was whether an SBM had to be on the registry not to be required to perform certain tests that are mandated to begin in January 2012.

There is no new rule, and there was no Commission action. We shoved everything into a press release and called it a day. And to make matters worse, we issued our press release on December 23, during the holidays and just days before the new testing requirement kicks in. Our insincerity is obvious.

Another policy question not discussed by the Commission was this: Should the registry be public? There are reasonable arguments that it should be. However, there are also reasons why it should not be public since, by publishing the registry, we are implicitly releasing confidential information. (To register, a company has to be below certain revenue and product-quantity thresholds. Commissioner Northup has detailed the problems with publicizing this information, and I won’t belabor them here.) My key concern is there was no Commission-level discussion of this important policy issue.

Instead of working to find a compromise or a solution that would accommodate both points of view—something that could have been accomplished—the concerns of half of the Commission were ignored. The Chairman decided to call the process of establishing the SBM Registry and the attendant issues surrounding it “operational” rather than policy in order to act unilaterally through staff, instead of through a Commission vote.

They have told companies to use the complicated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption process if they want to keep the CPSC from telling their financial particulars to the whole world. That process requires time and legal expertise, and I believe our retreat to FOIA is contrary to the spirit of the law.

Congress wanted to relieve the product-testing burden for companies least able to bear it and to protect America’s vital small business job-creation engine. Do we really think Congress meant for these businesses to save money on testing just to spend it on lawyers? All these points could and should have been part of a Commission discussion, so people understand the reasoning behind these important decisions.

Will there occasionally be some substantial, fundamental disagreements about the best course of action? Of course there will be, but we owe to each other and the public to work to make those as infrequent as possible and to resolve them as best we can when they occur. I know we can do better, and I hope we will, but I’ll need some help from my Democratic colleagues to build a bridge.


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