February 28, 2012
The panel's focus: Interrupting hazard patterns that consumers have endured for a long time, and have eluded effective risk reduction. Our challenge: To discuss how to employ the tools available to overcome obstacles to injury reduction and still maintain an adequate supply of affordable products that consumers want and need.
I welcome the opportunity to be here today to discuss what I believe are several profound questions - why do patterns of injury continue to elude effective risk reduction? What strategies can we use to overcome obstacles to injury reduction and still give consumers access to affordable products?
In preparation for this panel I took the opportunity to re-read a very important document in the history of product safety development in the US - the 1970 Bi-Partisan report of the Congressionally created Product Safety Commission. This report laid the groundwork for the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Congress created the Commission because there were 20 million Americans each year injured by consumer products and there was no coordinated effort to address these injuries.
I must tell you that I found the report’s findings and recommendations both inspirational and disheartening – inspirational because some 42 years ago, this bipartisan group of 7 members of Congress drew this conclusion and I quote:
“After considering the many forces contributing to the toll of injuries, we have concluded that the greatest promise for reducing risk resides in energizing the manufacturer’s ingenuity. We mean that with government stimulation they can accomplish more for safety with less effort and expense than any other body, more than educators, the courts, regulatory agencies or individual consumers. Manufacturers have it in their power to design, build, and market products in ways that will reduce if not eliminate most unreasonable and unnecessary hazards. Manufacturers are best able to take the longest strides to safety in the least time. The capacity of individual manufacturers to devise safety programs without undue extra cost has been demonstrated repeatedly: in safety glass, double insulated power tools, and releases on wringer washers.
I found the report disheartening, however, because in my several decades of work as a product safety consumer advocate, many of the findings 42 years ago are still true today. It brings to mind the expression “The more things change the more they stay the same.”
For example, the 1970 report notes:
“Self regulation by trade associations and standards groups are patently inadequate. Competitive forces may require management to subordinate safety factors to cost considerations, styling, and other marketing imperatives. There is a dearth of factors motivating producers toward safety. The consensus principle which is at the heart of all voluntary standards making is not effective for elevating safety standards. It permits the least responsible segment of an industry to retard progress in reducing hazards.”
The problem with voluntary standards remains true today – industry largely controls the process and if there isn’t a consensus, and unless industry wants to upgrade the standard, it doesn’t happen. This has certainly proved true with table saws which I will discuss more a bit later.
Let’s continue to look back in time because its useful to reflect on where we are today and how to address the questions before this panel. 42 years ago over when the report was published, 10,000 color television sets that caught fire from poor insulation, destroying homes and killing homeowners. The response from the Electronic Industries Association was to shoot the messenger – here’s what the EIA said – and I quote: “The Commission is subjecting named manufacturers to unfair competitive disadvantage; the number of television fires is infinitesimal.” A man who lost his father and stepmother in one of these fires said this: “we lost our parents and to us, the loss is not infinitesimal.”
In the 1970 report another product safety hazard, floor furnaces was addressed – these gas fired devices had metal grates that heated up to 300 -350 degrees the report said, “been searing infant flesh and imprinting waffle pattern scars for years. 300,000 children had been burned.” The 1970 report notes “For at least 10 years prior to our hearings manufacturers were aware of the dangers.” The American Gas Association Laboratory however, ducked responsibility. Its spokesman said and I quote:
”I do not believe there is available anything in the way of documented reports of accidents resulting from excessive temperatures. In order to avoid burns to small children, it would be necessary to limit the metal temperature to a maximum of 120 degrees and if this were done it would not be possible to heat a room with a floor furnace.”
The Commission brought in a firm on short notice and for a modest fee to develop a safer design – that firm came up with three possible alternatives that were both effective and safe.
This 1970 report is replete with examples like this – patterns of injury involving televisions, furnaces, exploding bottles, water vaporizers and the industry responses follow a pattern: denial of the injury data, placing blame on consumers for carelessness or so-called “misuse” of the product, arguing impracticality of redesign, and claiming the costs are too high to adopt safer designs. Never do we hear “we’re on it, we’re going to try to fix the hazard.”
So let’s move to more recent product hazards - I’d like to talk about three campaigns I’ve worked on.
Fifteen years ago Consumers Union gave me my first job as a consumer advocate for product safety, I will admit I was naïve. When I learned that there were products on the market that were injuring people, especially babies and young children, I assumed the manufacturers would rush to fix the problem. I also assumed federal agencies – like NHTSA or CPSC - whose job it is to protect consumers – would support advocates like me and my colleagues in their efforts to institute stronger standards and bring safer designs. I was wrong on both counts.
A major product safety campaign at CU was launched to prevent toddlers from being backed over and killed behind cars and SUVs. We didn’t have statistics from NHTSA because kids were injured typically not on public highways and roads but driveways, but Janette Fennell who founded Kids and Cars, and became our partner, WAS keeping the data and the numbers were astounding. Two kids a week injured or killed because they couldn’t be seen behind the vehicle - a total of 18,000 mostly children were being injured or killed each year – sound like a pattern? And yet every family thought when it happened to them was a freak accident.
Consumer Reports’ Auto Test measured the blind areas behind four classes of vehicles them, and found some and 50 foot long and 7 foot wide blind zones. CR published the results in a beautifully readable chart in Consumer Reports. And then CNN put 60 2 year olds behind a Chevy Suburban –and you could not see A SINGLE CHILD from the rear view or side mirrors. After a five year lobbying campaign, we succeeded in getting Congress to adopt a law requiring a rearward visibility standard for all vehicles.
NHTSA was never supportive and said the technology was extremely expensive – which wasn’t true actually and “might give drivers a false sense of security."
The industry opposed us – in fact, David Pittle and I visited a number of car manufacturers and asked them to show leadership by being the first to put rearview cameras in all of their vehicles – not a single manufacturer accepted our challenge.
Today a friendlier NHTSA today has determined that rear view cameras are the most effective means for meeting the law’s requirements. But now, once again, industry has succeeded in delaying the implementation date for this rule – which had a due date of February 29, 2012 and is now put off til December 31, 2012.
I learned one day in 2004 from an NPR story that a woodworker and physicist had invented a technology in his workshop in one month that would prevent a table saw from injuring the user. His name was Steve Gass, and his invention was a flesh detecting sensor in the blade that stopped the saw. Instead of amputating a finger, when it encounters flesh, the saw inflicted a very superficial wound that can be usually be treated with a bandaid.
The NPR report said were 10 amputations a day and 68,000 injuries a year from table saws. Those numbers are more or less the same today. This inventor was forced to start his own company, SawStop, because no manufacturer would adopt his technology. One was unusually candid with Gass – you’ve made our lives very difficult. Safety technology like the one you’ve invented only costs us money, it doesn’t help our bottom line. Adding your technology would also open us to liability for all of our saws that don’t have safety technology.
Think about that. Is there a more dangerous tool in the woodshop than a power saw? And here was a fix that could turn the most dangerous tool into the safest tool. Once again, despite a pattern of injury, a technology that exists to prevent the injury that can be adopted for a reasonable price, the industry has resisted adopting this nearly fail safe invention. Instead, the industry has done what so many before them have: arguing that safe design is too expensive, consumers don’t want it, it’s the operators fault, it opens us up to liability.
For table saw makers, things have changed dramatically since 2004. In November 2010 my organization wrote to the five Consumer Product Safety Commissioners asking for a mandatory safety standard on table saws. We brought victims to Washington and they met with four of five Commissioners. All were experienced woodworkers and all want a mandatory safety standard for table saws. Last October all five Commissioners supported moving ahead on an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for table saws. This situation reminds me of something the late Virginia Knauer, consumer advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan said in a speech to industry : Get with it boys, or the government will step in.
But again with Power Tools industry response follows is the same old song: denial of a problem despite official data documenting injuries, blame shifting onto users, claiming users of the safer saw design would have a “false sense of security” all in the face of a very viable safety technology to prevent injury that affordable and available in the marketplace. SawStop sells 30,000 safely designed saws every year.
The Power Tool Institute’s director said in a recent statement , and I quote: “Unfortunately, for consumers, such a mandatory standard could as much as quadruple the cost of current, inexpensive saws and significantly increase the cost of professional saws on the market today.” The Director also claims in a blog that with new blade guard technology there has been only one reported blade contact injury on a table saw.
The CPSC data says that additional cost at current prices would at most add $100 to the price of a saw. The very cheapest – and least safe saws sell for about $120 -$200 might double in price if you add $100. But not quadruple.. Second, PTI’s claim that there is only one injury on a saw with the new blade guard just doesn’t square with past injury data; further, PTI has proved an unreliable source about injuries from table saws in the past.
So lets return to the question before us on this panel: Interrupting longtime hazard patterns. Our challenge: how to employ the tools available to overcome obstacles to injury reduction and still maintain an adequate supply of affordable products that consumers want and need.
Manufacturers are in the best position to address hazards by designing danger out of the product. The 1970 original Product Safety Commission report wisely observed: since prospects for measurable reform of human behavior are distant, therefore, with govt stimulation – manufacturers can accomplish more for safety with less effort and expense than any other body, more than educators, the courts, regulatory agencies or individual consumers.” And that’s a quote. And we agree.
To do so, we suggest that manufacturers employ this 3-part analysis which consumer groups use in evaluating whether a product represents a safety hazard:
a) is there is a pattern of injury,
b) is there a technology to address the pattern of injury,
c) can that technology can be adopted for a reasonable cost. If you can answer yes to all those questions, then the product should be redesigned with safety technology employed.
Memo to manufacturers – please assess the costs accurately; there’s nothing so tiresome as these wild exaggerations of cost that we hear over and over. Think about your customers, think about your family members using the product and not simply your bottom line.
2. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the industry should use this database found at SaferProducts.gov to discern hazard patterns and work together to encourage the development of injury prevention technologies.
One note of caution however. The database has its limitations. For example, there’s not a single incident reported for table saw injuries –despite at least 67,000 documented injuries a year from table saws - why? Because table saw users who get injured figure its their fault and don’t report. They don’t realize how common finger amputations are with table saws. So this pattern of injury likely doesn’t get reported to a database or to manufacturers. We know the number of injuries from table saws because of reports from hospitals and emergency or trauma centers.
3. The Voluntary standards setting organizations need their committee processes reviewed. If there’s a safety technology that is effective in addressing hazards, Industry cannot be allowed to hinder progress and thus risk consumer safety as it has throughout the past decade in the case of table saws. Indeed, the Power Tool Institute has used the UL process to prevent new technology from being adopted fight and that must stop.
These are but a few ideas for addressing the challenge Dr. Pittle has put before us. I am sure there our audience members have many more creative suggestions and I look forward to our discussion.
4. The role of the Consumer Product Safety Commission:
Finally, government regulation is important to step in when the marketplace and/or the voluntary standards process has failed. That is what is happening today with Table Saws, but it ought to have happened in 2003 when a petition on Table Saw Safety was first filed. So I believe that government agencies should step in sooner when it is clear the industry isn’t adequately addressing the problem. The agencies let these hazards go on too long, allowing injuries to mount and the industry to continue to profit from the delay. Delay almost always benefits companies at the expense of consumers.