Sunday May 27, 2012
How Much “Harm” is Reported in Safer Products Database “Reports of Harm”?By Lee Bishop and Steve McGonegal
A number of studies have celebrated the recent first anniversary of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) public incident database available on the SaferProducts.gov website (hereafter “the database”).1 Attention has focused on the numbers of reports, the types of products reported, and who has provided reports.2
However, no one has yet examined the question of the extent to which the “reports of harm” on the database describe actual harm—i.e., product-related injuries or deaths. To answer this question, we analyzed the 7,210 “reports of harm” published in the 12 months after the first reports were posted on SaferProducts.gov on April 1, 2011. Our research indicates that the “reports of harm” language in Section 6A(b)(1)(A) of the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA) is not truly applicable to a substantial majority of the cases reported on the database thus far:
Our results confirm that simply counting the number of reports does not provide a reliable indicator of the injury risk associated with purchase and use of the specific consumer products or categories of products. A valid assessment of risk requires—as it always has—statistically derived estimates of the number of product-related injuries and the number of products in use, as well as a more detailed examination of the nature and severity of those injuries.
How Many Incidents Have Been Reported for each Category of Consumer Products?
During the first year, the largest share of the reports in the database (2,765 of 7,210) relate to “Kitchen” products, a new category which includes major appliances, countertop appliances, kitchen knives and gadgets, cookware, dishes, and glasses. There were more than 500 reports each for consumer products in the CPSC Home Maintenance and Structures, Furniture and Fixtures, and Baby product categories.
How Many of these “Reports of Harm” Involved Actual Injuries?
The database provides several options for consumers to indicate the type of medical attention required in cases where an injury occurred. However, an injury of any kind was reported in only about 30 percent of the cases (2,079 of 7,210) published on the database in its first 12 months of operation.3 Perhaps this result should not be surprising—a substantial share of consumer complaints to the CPSC prior to the launch of the database also involved incidents that did not involve injuries, but described potentially hazardous conditions.
Only one of every nine cases (11 percent) would qualify as a “report of harm” if the threshold is raised to include only injuries that required any medical attention other than first aid.4
Focusing specifically on injury cases where the level of care was reported, 61 percent either did not involve any medical attention at all or required only routine first aid.5 Injuries that required medical treatment were equally likely to be treated in hospital emergency rooms (ERs) or by other medical professionals. Among the cases treated in hospitals, 30 percent resulted in hospitalization,6 compared with a six percent rate estimated by CPSC for all product-related injuries treated in hospital ERs in 2010.7
It is also worth keeping in mind that the number of injuries reported on the database thus far is substantially less than one percent of incident reports of product-related injuries treated in the approximately 100 hospitals in the CPSC National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) network of hospital ERs each year. Development of injury profiles associated with consumer products should be tied to this larger, more statistically based sample of incident reports whenever possible.
Are the Reports in each Product Category Equally Likely to Involve Actual Harm?
Another interesting finding from our analysis is that there are very pronounced differences among various categories of products in the share of “reports of harm” that involved actual injuries. Most prominently, the percentage of Kitchen products reports that involved injuries is less than half of that for any of the other 14 CPSC product categories. Only two percent of these Kitchen product reports involved injuries that required some type of medical attention.
On the other end of the spectrum, the majority of the reports in the Clothing and Accessories (85 percent) and Drywall (63 percent, not shown on chart) categories involved injuries, with 61 percent of the (mostly footwear-related) Clothing and Accessories reports describing injuries that required medical attention.
Injuries and Potential Injury Incidents
The upshot of this analysis is that the previous terminology that CPSC used to describe its database of consumer complaints and other product-related incident reports under Section 6(b) and (c) of the CPSA—the “Injury and Potential Injury Incidents” database—is a more accurate description of the consumer reports published on the database than the provision in the new Section 6A of the CPSA which required CPSC to develop and maintain a public database of “reports of harm.” In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the likelihood and severity of the actual harm may not be related to simple counts of the number of database reports for a particular product or category of products—even those presented in our articles on Product Safety Letter.
1 These articles include our previous piece in PSL, the CPSC On Safety blog, and a Consumer Federation of America/Kids in Danger/Consumers Union (CFA/KID/CU) report. We all jumped the gun a bit in celebrating the public database’s first anniversary: all three articles included less than a full year of SaferProducts.gov reports.
2 The CU report highlights the finding that 97 percent of the incident reports were provided by consumers. However, “consumer” has a much broader meaning than is the case in common usage. Section 1102.10(a)(1) defines “consumers” as including, but not limited to, users of consumer products, family members, relatives, parents, guardians, friends, attorneys, investigators, professional engineers, agents of a user of a consumer product, and observers of the consumer products being used.
3 There were also 38 product-related fatality cases in the first 12 months of published reports.
4 Note that “significant injuries,” such as “Injuries necessitating hospitalization which require actual medical or surgical treatment” are presumed to be “serious injuries” under the CPSC’s guidelines. 16 C.F.R. Sec. 1115.6(c). In turn, a “serious injury” risk is important to the determination of a reportable “substantial product hazard” or “unreasonable risk of serious injury or death” in section 15 of the CPSA. See, e.g., 16 C.F.R. Sec. 1115.12(g)(1)(iii).
5 The level of medical treatment, if any, was not known or provided in nine percent of the cases where some type of injury reportedly occurred. The percentages shown in the chart exclude these cases.
6 This share is calculated as the percent of injuries resulting in hospitalization (6 percent) divided into the sum of hospitalized and ER treated injuries (6 plus 14 percent).
7 The 2011 NEISS database has not yet been released. “Hospitalized” cases are those in which the patient was treated and either admitted from the ER to the hospital or transferred to another facility.