The Robinson Report #34: Saying “Good Bye” to the CPSC and “Hello” to a Continued Commitment to Advocating for Product Safety

My almost-five years as a Commissioner of the CPSC have flown by. I was honored to be nominated by President Barack Obama for this position in 2012 and confirmed by the Senate in 2013 and took the faith they put in me very seriously.

From my first moments at our headquarters in Bethesda, MD, I fully and intentionally immersed myself in each issue pending before the Commission, always focused on CPSC’s mission: keeping consumers safe.

I have great concerns about the present path of the CPSC, however, as my time as Commissioner comes to a close, I want to take a moment to focus on the positive contributions I have been able to make to the CPSC and its mission.

First, I want to thank CPSC staff for their tireless commitment to the agency and its mission. Congress has given us extremely limited resources. Nevertheless, CPSC staff, including our economists, scientists, engineers, compliance officers, lawyers, toxicologists, field investigators, import surveillance inspectors, administrators, and managers, dedicate their time and effort every day to ensure that American consumers are safe from hazardous products. I am honored to have worked with many of our talented people in promoting CPSC’s mission.

I also want to thank my personal staff: former Chief Counsel Heather Capell Bramble, Senior Counsel Boaz Green, and Policy Advisor Dorothy Yahr. We have worked together day in and day out, sharing ideas and implementing an agenda to support the agency’s mission. This team has been the perfect combination of professionalism, respect, and intelligence. We have worked hard, and committed our time and passion to the CPSC. And, as many of you already know, we have never shied away from controversial issues. Throughout it all, this team has always kept our sense of humor, including about ourselves. The honor of working with this team is something that I value tremendously and will never forget. Thank you Heather, Boaz and Dottie for being such a great team!

As my team and I are now leaving the CPSC, I want to highlight a few key issues that I believe have been and will continue to be critically important areas in consumer product safety: data, recalls, social media, advanced technology/internet of things, and specific hazardous product areas. My team has focused on these issues and we have seen many successes, but there is much more to do. I hope my fellow Commissioners and future Commissioners will take up some of these issues and continue this critical work.

Data: Increasing the Quality and Quantity of CPSC’s Data

A signature element of my tenure has been finding ways to improve the quality and quantity of CPSC’s data. I have spoken about the need to improve our data collection and analysis with countless people inside and outside CPSC, and leveraged social media to make calls for new ideas on ways to improve our data. And I have pushed data issues in Operating Plans, Mid-Years, strategic plans, rulemaking, and hearings. I am hopeful that the CPSC will continue to keep data enhancement a top priority.

Below are some highlights from our data work:

• Made significant outreach to lawyers, medical professionals, urgent care facilities, and consumers about reporting consumer product-related incidents to www.saferproducts.gov;
• Initiated efforts to declare the CPSC a HIPAA-exempt public health authority;
• Successfully introduced Litigation Guidance for courts and private parties to except or exempt the CPSC when issuing orders and settlement agreements that prohibit sharing of certain consumer product related injury and death data;
• Worked with Consumers’ Union to establish a process for them to share consumer product-related injury data with CPSC;
• Assisted in organizing and participating in the CPSC’s first data hearing;
• Met with organizations including the World Bank, McKinsey, Deloitte, Bloomberg, Gates Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others to discuss ways in which the CPSC can gather, analyze, and share more and better consumer product related incident data;
• Analyzed current approaches in private industry and other government agencies regarding Big Data issues (aggregation, integration, analytics, visualization, etc.) and how to best leverage an organization’s current data assets, as well as how to include additional unstructured and messy data into an organization’s data portfolio, including the value of adding a Chief Data Officer to senior staff at the CPSC and shared this knowledge with Acting Chairman Buerkle and the other Commissioners;
• Worked with The National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention to add a hyperlink to www.saferproducts.gov to their state reporting form to report deaths involving consumer products to the CPSC;
• Connected with experts at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington to discuss projects on which we may work together to improve CPSC’s quantity and quality of data; and
• Successfully added projects relating to improving and modernizing saferproducts.gov and collecting incident data from urgent care centers in the most recent Mid-Year.

Furniture Stability – Reducing the deadly hazard of furniture and TV tip-overs

Another issue to which I have been committed during my time at CPSC is reducing the number of injuries and deaths related to furniture tip overs. A child dies every two weeks as a result of a tip-over incident, and tip overs send a child to the emergency department every 30 minutes. When I arrived at the CPSC, we were aware of this deadly, hidden hazard, but we were not taking a proactive role in preventing these deaths and injuries.

While I have actively participated in Anchor It!, CPSC’s information and educational campaign to consumers, I have never thought anchoring furniture to a wall is where we should concentrate our efforts to save lives from furniture tip overs. Reviewing incident reports has strongly reinforced this view. Too many people never hear of this hidden danger and, even those who do and anchor their furniture have tip-over incidents due to installing the device in drywall or flimsy furniture backs.

We must start with stable furniture. I have spent significant time and effort trying to ensure that dressers are stable. I have spearheaded efforts at the CPSC to ensure that those companies that manufacture dangerously unstable furniture recall their furniture in the most effective way: giving full refunds or paying for a professional to anchor the furniture if the consumer decides to keep it. I have also worked to ensure that manufacturers of recalled dressers meet the most basic stability standards going forward. Unfortunately, these efforts are being undone under the present leadership, but I have done all I can to keep these efforts on track.

I also have tried to get industry to voluntarily pass a standard that would require more stability than the present standard does. There has been vociferous pushback on this, presumably because it would be more expensive to meet a more stringent standard.

There is still much work to be done to ensure furniture is more stable. At the very least, I am delighted that I was able to vote for the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regarding Clothing Storage Unit Tip Overs. I hope all of this work will continue because the lives of our most vulnerable citizens are at stake.

Below are some highlights of the work my team has done:

• Visited furniture manufacturers in the U.S. to learn about how furniture is made and the challenges that manufacturers face in building more stable furniture;
• Engaged with the voluntary standards subcommittee (ASTM) and its members to try to improve furniture stability;
• Led many efforts to devote agency resources to information gathering and data analysis of injuries and deaths associated with furniture tip-overs;
• Increased the frequency of CPSC’s report on furniture and TV tip-over injuries and death to an annual report versus a biennial report;
• Called for staff briefing package reviewing the effectiveness of the current voluntary standard, the level of compliance with this standards, and outlining ways to improve the standard;
• Acted as lead CPSC spokesperson on the CPSC’s Anchor It! campaign.
• Worked with legislators on the STURDY Act that would give CPSC increased authority to set a stability standard for furniture; and,
• Voted to approve the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regarding Clothing Storage Unit Tip Overs.

Advocating for More Robust Recalls

Another issue that I immediately identified as critically important is recall effectiveness. As we all know, the effectiveness rates for CPSC product recalls, especially those related to children’s products and toys, are abysmal. In order to address this ongoing problem, we must acknowledge that, in most instances, the interests of the recalling company and the interests of the CPSC are completely different. Successful recalls cost a company more money than unsuccessful recalls. The CPSC’s driving motivation, however, should be getting the dangerous product off the market either for a refund, a replacement, or an effective repair.

One of the first projects on which I worked was with Commissioner Adler in amending the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding Voluntary Remedial Actions and Guidelines for Voluntary Recall Notice to include practical changes to make recalls more effective. Unfortunately, that NPR never led to a Final Rule. My team nonetheless continued to study the issue and tried to initiate incremental changes in the way the CPSC approaches recalls. We also reached out to consumer groups, recall administrators, other federal agencies, behavioral scientists, and industry stakeholders to discuss what could be done to increase recall effectiveness. We are hopeful that Chairman Buerkle will lead efforts to continue this work as she has repeatedly stated her intention to improve the CPSC’s recall-effectiveness rate.

Below are some examples of the work we have done on this issue:

• Researched, analyzed, and presented a history of recalls at the CPSC to staff and other Commissioners;
• Led a change in the CPSC’s directives that resulted in more recalls being presented to the full Commission for approval;
• Led a successful effort to make CPSC recalls more robust by including language requiring companies to take actions that would alleviate consumers’ burden to repair or return defective products;
• Participated in the Recall Effectiveness Workshop hosted by the CPSC; and,
• Spoke to key industry stakeholders about how we can work together to make recalls more effective as the graduation speaker for the past three years at the Advanced Product Safety Management course at Saint Louis University’s John Cook School of Business, Center for Supply Chain Management Studies.

Gun locks and Gun Safes

Data show that the most dangerous products in the U.S. market today are guns. We are unique in the world in this arena. And guns, of course, are consumer products.

I was warned in my early CPSC days: “don’t even say the word gun!”

I fully appreciate that Congress has explicitly excluded guns from CPSC’s jurisdiction (Read more on my blog about that misguided exclusion).

However, CPSC does have jurisdiction over gun locks and safes. My team concentrated on ways to improve voluntary standards for gun locks and gun safes and expand the scope of the voluntary standards to include technological advancements in these products, as well as increase compliance with these standards. The number of deaths related to gun violence in this country is overwhelming and the daily news reports of innocent people being killed are mind numbing. The least the CPSC can do is work with the voluntary standards community to get this small part of the issue right. Below are some highlights from our work on this issue:

• Researched and analyzed the issues surrounding the use of gun locks and safes in the U.S. and provided that information to the other Commissioners and CPSC staff;
• Met with U.S. and international gun lock and gun safe manufacturers and startups to discuss the new technology being planned and used in the next generation of gun locks and safes; and,
• Led efforts to allocate funds through the Operational Plan process to review the current standards and work to improve the gun lock and safe standards including funding staff’s work leading to their recommendation to ASTM to reopen the standards and outlining various ways to improve them.

Advanced Technology (eCommerce and Internet of Things)

I am confident that the common use of eCommerce sales platforms;) the need for new battery technologies to provide smaller, faster, and stronger power sources; and the advanced technologies associated with the Internet of Things will pose significant safety, regulatory, and enforcement challenges going forward. To that end, my team has focused on trying to learn as much as possible about these issues and to connect with stakeholders who are invested in these technologies and work with them to improve safety. Below are a few of the initiatives on which we have worked:

• Researched new and innovative technologies in marketing, sales, and the Internet of Things, and how these technological advancements will affect consumer product safety in the future;
• Visited the Consumer Electronics Show as part of the Leaders in Technology program and met with many innovators, entrepreneurs, and fellow regulators to discuss the implications of advanced technology on product safety.; and,
• Visited Israel to specifically meet with multiple stakeholders focused on advanced technology and potential safety issues including The Technion and individual companies, and presented at a roundtable hosted by Israeli Chambers of Commerce and Israel AmCham. On my return I provided the Acting Chair and senior management a detailed report on the trip and what I had learned.

Social Media: Facebook, Blogs, and Twitter

I am particularly proud of my team’s work to ensure the CPSC moved into the 21st century in terms of how we communicate with our stakeholders. When I arrived at the CPSC in 2013, Commissioners did not have blogs or Twitter accounts and the agency did not have a Facebook page. Today, Commissioners and other authorized agency personnel are using social media to enhance their messaging. And I am delighted that the CPSC is harnessing its ability to utilize social media to post recalls and key safety education and information materials. Here is some of what we accomplished in this area:

• Led the successful effort to provide CPSC Commissioners the ability to post blogs and tweets in their capacity as Commissioners;
• Supported the effort to establish a Facebook page for the CPSC to publicize product recalls and safety messaging; and,
• Published 34 blog posts (including this one) and 633 tweets related to CPSC and safety issues.

Corded Window Coverings

On average, a child dies each month due to strangulation by a window covering cord. I have blogged and tweeted about this dangerous hazard before. I have met with families who have lost their child to a window covering cord incident. This danger will not go away until there are no cords on window coverings.

Throughout my tenure, I have studied this issue from all different angles and I have tried to make the most impact on making these products safer. There is still a long way to go to ensure that corded blinds that kill kids are off the market and that, until then, we make families and landlords aware of this hazard.

Below are some things we have done to move the CPSC closer to protecting children from this hazard:

• Visited multiple U.S. manufacturers of window coverings to learn about the challenges of manufacturing cordless window coverings;
• Met with many diverse stakeholders regarding the safety of window coverings and innovative and inexpensive ways to achieve safer solutions for window coverings.
• Visited manufacturers in China to learn about the process and costs of manufacturing cordless window coverings; and,
• Attended many industry voluntary standards meetings and CPSC technical meetings related to corded window coverings.

Fireworks

Finally, I cannot post my final blog as a CPSC Commissioner without mentioning fireworks. In July 2015 I wrote my first blog, “Celebrating Safety!” I wrote about the frightening injury and death statistics associated with improperly using fireworks and how one can use fireworks safely. I worked with my colleagues on a number of initiatives aimed at revising the CPSC’s fireworks regulations to ensure the production of safer products with the least burdens to industry. CPSC recently held a well-attended public hearing on the proposed regulations. Although the CPSC has not yet issued final regulations on this, I am confident the CPSC will continue to work on this issue to determine the best path forward.

Below are some examples of the work we have done related to fireworks:

• Met with the various industry stakeholders to hear their concerns on relevant firework regulations;
• Visited the fireworks manufacturers and testing facilities in China and saw first-hand, the challenges in production and testing of safe fireworks;
• Met and worked intimately with technical CPSC experts and others to study and analyze issues related to the testing of fireworks both in the U.S. and abroad; and,
• Worked in a bi-partisan effort to issue guidance related to testing fireworks.
• Initiated retrospective review of CPSC’s mandatory standard, which led to issuance of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that attempts to modernize the standard.

Although my term as CPSC Commissioner is now coming to a close, I am not done advocating for safe consumer products. I look forward to continuing this conversation about safety and working with all stakeholders in the future.

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