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January/February 2011
Feature

The CPSC-ASTM Collaboration

The Consensus Process Plays a Growing Role in Ensuring Child-Safe Products

For many years, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and ASTM International have partnered to protect people through the use of standards.

As people in the United States embarked on their annual holiday shopping extravaganzas in late 2010, consumer groups began to roll out advisories about products, especially products for children that could be dangerous. Toys are usually at the top of the list. But safety concerns often involve other products for children that in many cases have led to recalls.

That recalls have become almost routine is in part due simply to design and quality issues. It is also the result of government oversight, strengthened by the development of numerous safety and testing standards for consumer goods. Indeed, there has been a change in culture around safety over the past few decades. At one time, little was done about safety problems: Consumers were on their own and children in particular were often put at risk. However, starting in the early 1970s, when the U.S. Congress created the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, that agency, often aided by the yardstick of ASTM International standards, has been a bulwark in helping to keep dangerous designs and shoddy products from injuring consumers — especially children. Specifically, this work has often been conducted with the assistance of ASTM Committee F15 on Consumer Products, established in 1973 at the request of CPSC.

Over the years, Committee F15 has developed a number of standards to deal with emerging hazards — and any type of issue in many different categories of products that focus on consumers. That work became even more crucial in 2008 after a spate of recalls led Congress to pass the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, a mandate that has thrust additional responsibilities on CPSC and on ASTM, for the first time charting a preference for the adoption of ASTM’s voluntary consensus consumer product standards as the basis of federal mandates.

“ASTM has played a vital role in developing safety standards for children younger than five, which the commission has used to establish mandatory standards under the CPSIA,” says Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of CPSC. She adds, “CPSC will continue to closely coordinate with ASTM in 2011 as additional federal standards are established for juvenile products.”

In Section 106, for example, Congress mandated that ASTM F963, Consumer Safety Specification for Toy Safety, become a mandatory standard for improving toy safety. And, in Section 104 of the CPSIA, Congress identified a whole group of product categories for durable products intended for children under five for which CPSC was to develop standards — including high chairs, baby gates, booster seats and bassinets — based on ASTM’s process and, where applicable, on existing standards.

CPSC staff has been working closely with ASTM for decades to help develop effective consumer product safety standards, and these activities have accelerated since Congress approved the CPSIA. This is especially true with the CPSIA mandate for the rapid development and approval of infant and toddler product standards.

Under the CPSIA, the commission is required to consult with other groups prior to issuing a mandatory standard, and Committee F15 and its subcommittees have been instrumental in providing this consultation. Child product engineers, experts in consumer product safety and others participating in the F15 subcommittees examine and assess the effectiveness of relevant ASTM standards with a view toward their incorporation, in whole or in part, into the CPSC rules, or creating new standards to meet a CPSC need. CPSC works with F15 and its subcommittees to evaluate death and injury data, hazard patterns and recent recalls. These cooperative activities can also include developing new testing protocols and conducting laboratory tests to validate testing approaches.

Recently, CPSC staff has been providing technical support for a total of 61 consumer product safety standards, 42 of which are handled through ASTM committees. CPSC has indicated it is hopeful that this close coordination will continue and will contribute to saving lives and reducing serious injuries to children.

How the Process Works

CPSC has about 500 employees and is responsible for overseeing safety issues relative to thousands of product categories. ASTM technical committees provide stakeholder expertise that could not otherwise be found among CPSC staff.

In most cases, the law requires CPSC to use a voluntary rather than a mandatory standard if the voluntary standard will adequately reduce the hazard and there is reasonable assurance that the standard will be used. Although there may sometimes be compelling reasons for CPSC to choose not to use voluntary standards, in general the CPSC will make appropriate modifications to the ASTM provisions and add more stringent safety provisions if it deems that necessary. Nevertheless, the goal of the cooperative effort is to try to have close harmony between voluntary and mandatory standards.

CPSC requires that the voluntary standards organizations with which it works must demonstrate certain core requirements. One is transparency — ensuring that anyone who wants to participate has an opportunity to be involved. Another is balance. The group must be balanced so that no one set of interests can dominate.

Due process is also critical. All participants — manufacturing company representatives, academia, testing lab professionals and consumer advocates — have an equal opportunity to be heard during the process of drafting and then voting on standards under development. Through all of this work, every effort is made to ensure a timely and effective result so that the number of deaths and injuries associated with a consumer product can be reduced.

The development of a new or revised ASTM International standard is often initiated when CPSC approaches ASTM regarding the need for a particular safety standard. CPSC staff will provide a list of people who might be interested in developing the standard. If the stakeholders agree, ASTM will then establish a committee or subcommittee and solicit people and organizations to become involved. When a committee is organized, ASTM staff explains the ASTM system and how it works to the participants. Assuming the participants decide to move ahead, they will then work on different aspects of the subject such as safety performance provisions, labeling and testing protocols.

When the CPSC feels it appropriate, the ASTM standard will be incorporated by reference and any additional safety provisions are then added to the CPSC mandatory rule.

Diversity and Consensus

For those who are in the community being regulated, the standards development process can involve high stakes, including the possibility that existing products might be forced off the market. But, according to Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association Executive Director Mike Dwyer, on the whole, the CPSC-ASTM process has worked well. His association represents some 250 manufacturing companies involved in juvenile manufacturing. “We initially approached ASTM about the need for highchair standards, and with their guidance we started certifying them in the late 1970s,” says Dwyer. Today, the association has its own certification program for 22 different products, each linked to applicable ASTM standards. “JPMA does not set the standard, ASTM does,” Dwyer notes, “and JPMA certification program participants have their products tested to those standards.”

Since 1976, JPMA has also participated in the F15 committee. “Industry likes clarity on compliance to standards, whether voluntary or mandatory, and in some cases has asked for clarity,” says Dwyer. At present, he says, an issue for manufacturers is the fact that ASTM may choose to update standards, but so far, it isn’t clear whether those updates will translate into immediate mandates if CPSC has previously adopted a version of a standard as a formal rule.

“We think the ASTM process is a good process, but one of the challenges now is that the standards setting work is embedded in the regulatory process. As a beneficial consequence you are seeing more robust conversations on these subjects,” Dwyer says. However, he notes, when there are deadlines for rulemaking, as is currently the case with CPSIA mandates, the time allowed to bring standards into alignment with regulatory needs is dramatically shortened. The compacted timeline has the potential to force committees to make decisions to tighten requirements without the usual amount of rigorous testing and experience data that is normally available when revising standards. “The manufacturers involved in the process have invested a significant amount of time and resources to rapidly evaluate and assess the implications of the proposed changes so that we can feel confident that we are improving safety without creating new hazards,” he says. “We must stay focused to ensure that the pressure to act does not cause us to implement design changes to product categories that will ultimately make for a less safe environment.”

How has all of this worked from the vantage point of consumer advocates? According to Donald L. Mays, F15 committee member and senior director of product safety and technical policy at Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports magazine), his organization was consulted in the development of CPSIA and was instrumental in recommending that F963 become a mandatory standard for toys. And, Consumers Union has stayed involved. “We follow incidents with a lot of these juvenile products, and if we feel a standard is not effective, we will become vocal to say we need to do something further through the F15 committee,” says Mays.

For instance, he notes, ASTM had been working to develop a durability test for drop-side crib hardware. For a variety of reasons, the process had not yet produced a revision to the existing crib standard, while drop-side cribs were being recalled and incidents were being reported. “As a member of the F15 committee, I said, it is time to change the standard so that it will no longer recognize this type of design; if companies want to be compliant they simply can’t make this type of crib anymore,” Mays says. It was a radical proposal, Mays notes, “but no one threw me out of the window,” and in fact, his suggestion was adopted. Cribs with drop sides are no longer compliant with the current crib standard.

Mays believes that the ASTM process produces good results and that the opinions of all stakeholders — not always included among the staff experts involved in government standards development — are needed before writing a regulation. “Relying on the consensus-based standard process that ASTM has allows stakeholders to have that input,” Mays says.

Alan R. Earls is a writer and author who covers business and technology topics for newspapers, magazines and websites. He is based near Boston, Mass.