A child falls off a bike with faulty handlebars. A toddler gets injured in a poorly designed stroller. An entire family becomes ill from their home’s toxic drywall. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) collects thousands of safety incident reports like these each year, but never before have those complaints been made public.
All that is set to change in March of 2011, when the CPSC will launch its new public complaint database, www.saferproducts.gov, and will allow consumers to post and view safety reports of products that fall under the agency’s jurisdiction (the CPSC does not oversee products like cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, cars, or tires).
The CPSC’s decision to make all its complaints public, as required by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, was immediately celebrated by consumer rights advocates as a valuable resource in helping consumers make informed decisions about the safety of the products they buy.
Major manufactures have been less enthusiastic about the plan. In a recent Washington Post article, Rosario Palmieri, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, voiced concern that the database will subject businesses to inaccurate and malicious reports by competitors or fanatical consumers who intentionally want to damage a brand.
This argument seems weak in light of the popularity of user-generated review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List, where it’s relatively easy to weed out the rantings of disgruntled employees or bitter competitors from more legitimate complaints.
A concern with considerable more weight is the fact that, as a government agency, the CPSC carries a lot of clout; a negative report posted by a government-sponsored site could be much more damaging than complaints posted in less official channels. To prevent this, the CPSC has implemented a variety of safeguards to ensure public postings don’t recklessly damage a brand’s reputation:
- When a consumer files a complaint, the CPSC has five days to notify the manufacturer
- The manufacturer then has 10 days to respond
- If a company believes the complaint is false or gives away a trade secret, the CPSC will make a decision of whether or not to publish it
- If the report is published, the manufacturer still has the opportunity to write a response that will be published alongside the complaint
www.saferproducts.gov has the potential to be an effective early warning system that saves lives and injury by alerting customers to potential dangers—long before the years and months it can take the CPSC and manufacturer to coordinate a successful recall.