Image by SaferProducts.gov

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), which provided a long overdue upgrade of critical safety protections for consumer products. The CPSIA revitalized the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and created the publicly available safety incident online database, better known as www.SaferProducts.gov.

The database received strong support in Congress when the CPSIA was being negotiated in March 2008. As Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) explained at the time, the bill would “give consumers better access to vital safety information by creating a searchable database that has information including reports of injuries, illness, and death related to the use of consumer products.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) added a worthwhile hypothetical about the database during the debate over the bill: “(W)e do not have to wait until tragedy strikes close to home to hear about safety concerns other consumers have already discovered. So if I know about that crib, and I go on line, and I put it on, and now another family looks and says: Let me figure this out, let me find out if this is the type of product that has any problems, and they see that information, it is a warning and preventive measure that is powerful because information is powerful.”

The database, which officially launched in March 2011 as SaferProducts.gov, so far has collected over 15,000 safety incidents from consumers and others. Members of the public can submit “reports of harm” that must contain minimum required information which then will be posted at SaferProducts.gov and available for review by the public approximately 15 business days after the report is submitted.

Manufacturers and industry associations have resisted the database since its inception, sometimes successfully. Two years ago, for instance, a manufacturer successfully sued the CPSC to block an incident report from being posted to the database. The court also granted the manufacturer’s request to remain anonymous, sealing much of the documents in the case. (Public Citizen, Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America have filed an appeal seeking to unseal the court documents.)

Despite the industry opposition, SaferProducts.gov continues to flourish. To mark the CPSIA’s fifth year, here are five reasons why the database should become a go-to tool for families across America.

1) Power to the peopleBefore the database, it would take an unreasonably long time before consumers would learn of safety incidents with products. Months and even years after a consumer was harmed by a defective product, the safety information might eventually trickle down to consumers. A manufacturer or the agency would become aware of a defect with a product or injuries that the product caused, then a long time could pass before the agency and the manufacturer decided it was time to report the safety risk to the public. SaferProducts.gov helps to reduce the time it takes for a safety hazard to become public by allowing the public to directly report incidents.

2) Name the product – it’s there. The Consumer Product Safety Commission oversees 15,000 types of products. Any of those that present safety risks can be reported to Saferproducts.gov. The database contains a wealth of information on baby products, electronics, furnishings and decorations, home maintenance equipment, kitchen tools, sports equipment, personal care products, toys, and more.

3) Notice for all. Consumers who report the incident on SaferProducts.gov are doing a service for all involved. They are notifying fellow members of the public, the CPSC and the manufacturer of the product connected to the respective safety incident.

4) Manufacturers respond. Product manufacturers, including importers and private labelers can publish comments in response to specific incident reports. Although, many manufacturer comments are standard and generic for every complaint they receive, they provide a contact number and encourage their customers to reach them directly. In other instances, manufacturers provide detailed comments addressing the safety incident at issue. Some assert detailed denials that the respective safety incident was caused by their products, while others have directed the reporting consumer to cease using the product at issue. As a whole, the comments are useful for everyone: the consumer reporting the incident, those reviewing the report, the CPSC, and the manufacturers themselves.

5) Additional information for consumers. The report of harm includes questions related to how the matter was resolved, particularly whether the consumer contacted the manufacturer and whether they had additional details related to the contact. Consumers have reported their experiences with the respective manufacturers, which is helpful for future customers. Some reported that they simply left a message with the manufacturer, that the manufacturer refunded the cost of the product, or that the dispute over the incident remained unresolved. Either way, many of the responses provide helpful insight to shoppers looking for safety information in the database.

Five years after the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was signed into law, the creation of SaferProducts.gov is an ongoing victory for consumers to celebrate.

Christine Hines is the consumer and civil justice counsel with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division

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