Sunday May 27, 2012
The Safer Products Database – What’s in It and What Does It Tell Us?By Lee L. Bishop and Steve McGonegal
Along with the new product testing and certification requirements and the adoption of several new standards for various juvenile products, 2011 was notable for the March 11th launch of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) public information database, available at SaferProducts.gov. The database contains reports of product-related injuries and other incidents provided by consumers, health care and child care providers, consumer advocacy groups, attorneys, and other third parties.
The launch of the public database was accompanied by a flood of commentary—either heralding a new dawn in consumer awareness or bemoaning the imminent demise of virtuous companies from unscrupulous libelers. The CPSC news release announcing the launch promised, “Reporting product safety incidents through this new, easy-to-use site will help CPSC identify product hazards quicker and provide consumers with safety information on products in and around the home.” 1 Chairman Inez Tenenbaum’s vision was that SaferProducts.gov would be a site that generates more reporting to the CPSC. 2 Two CPSC Commissioners, however, expressed grave concerns about the reliability of the information that would be available: 3
Trial lawyers pushing class-action suits could gin up hundreds of anonymous complaints, then point the jurors to those complaints at the “official” CPSC website as a way to feign the legitimacy of their theories that a product in question caused vast harm.
Both sides in the debate seemed to forget that the CPSC had been receiving consumer complaints and allowing manufacturers to object or comment on them since the CPSC was founded in 1972.
As the database approaches its first birthday, it is worthwhile to examine the features of the SaferProducts.gov landscape thus far and to compare these reports with the larger number of complaints submitted to the CPSC under Section 6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act (“CPSA”) during the past three years.4 Was the database the godsend its proponents hoped it would be or the dire threat to capitalism that its opponents feared?
What Products Are Reported in the Database?
The first reports were published on April 1, 2011, so reports are now available for three successive quarters. Thus far, 5,263 reports met the CPSC standards for publication. More than one-third (35 percent) of them have cited one of 10 types of products out of the approximately 800 tracked in the CPSC’s coding system. Kitchen appliances (ranges, ovens, dishwashers, and refrigerators) accounted for nearly one-quarter of the SaferProducts.gov reports.
How do the Number of Reports or Products Vary over Time?
One of the most striking features about these reports is the regularity of their filing—an average of 19.5 daily in each of the first three quarters after launch. The top 10 products ranked in terms of the number of complaints received are also very consistent across quarters—only one other product accounted for more than two percent of SaferProducts.gov reports in any of the first three quarters of the public database.
How do the SaferProducts.gov Reports Compare to Previous Consumer Complaints to CPSC?
Simply looking at the SaferProducts.gov report counts, it is not possible to assess whether the CPSC has received an unexpectedly high or low number of complaints relating to a particular type of product. The complaints submitted pursuant to Section 6(b) of the CPSA—both before and after the launch of the public database—serve as a useful benchmark.
Over this longer time span, some transient product-related concerns make their appearance—Chinese drywall in 2009 and Diaper Max in May of 2010—but most of the products in the SaferProducts.gov “Top 10” have been the sources of significant shares of consumer complaints over a longer time span. The spike in footwear complaints on SaferProducts.gov may be a similar reflection of a short term concern–only time will tell.
As noted above, many consumer complaints received by the CPSC do not meet the criteria to be published on the SaferProducts.gov database. The total number of complaints (12,158) entered in the CPSC complaint database in 2011 highlights one potential source of concern. Although the SaferProducts.gov database has made it easier for the public to review reports on specific product brands and models, the total number of consumer complaints received by the CPSC dropped substantially—more than 23,000 complaints were entered in the CPSC database in 2010 and more than 16,000 in 2009.
One explanation for the drop-off in reports is that the more extensive complaint data collection form could deter some consumers from making reports of any kind, whether for the SaferProducts.gov database or the Section 6(b) process. It is not immediately apparent whether this is an unfortunate or desirable result—the reduced reporting may diminish the overall pool of information available to the CPSC or it may simply cull out reports that lack sufficient detail to be useful. The reports on SaferProducts.gov certainly provide more extensive descriptions of incident details—these narratives average about 780 characters per report, more than four times as long as the 180-character average for Section 6(b) complaints received in 2009 and 2010.
Thus far, it seems that for most part, the SaferProducts.gov database has followed the historical pattern of consumer complaints received by the CPSC in recent years. In fact, our analysis indicates that the previous Section 6(b) complaint data were already a good deal more useful than proponents of the public database may have assumed. Although the public database may not have identified heretofore unknown or unreported hazards that affect entire classes of products, it may provide new detail on trends in the number and types of reports relating to specific brands or models over time—an analysis that will be feasible by the time that SaferProducts.gov is getting ready to celebrate its next birthday.
1 Press Release #11-168, U.S. Consumer Prod. Safety Comm’n, CPSC Launches New Consumer Product Safety Information Database Today (Mar. 11, 2011).
2 Chairman Inez Moore Tenenbaum, Statement to the Ass’n of Home Appliance Mfrs. (May 2, 2011).
3 Editorial, CPSC’s Database of Doom, WASH. TIMES, Nov. 29, 2010.
4 Unlike the previous CPSC consumer complaint data collection system, the SaferProducts.gov reports include manufacturer/brand information and are publicly available online. Although many product-related consumer complaints do not meet the criteria for publication, these reports are included (along with those published on SaferProducts.gov) in the more complete file of reported incidents contained in the CPSC Injury and Potential Injury Incidents (IPII) database. The IPII database has been maintained since the establishment of the CPSC in 1973. Consumer complaints and other IPII reports can be obtained from CPSC under an FOIA request.