THe Consumer Product Safety Commission has begun to define its policy on industry development of voluntary safety standards for consumer products.
The guidelines have been a long time coming. In recent years, many industries and companies have developed voluntary standards in response to public pressures, and until now the commission had no formal way of recognizing those standards.
One example has been the hedge trimmer industry, which, through its trade association, has developed 'impressive safety standards," according to CPSC officials.
One standard involves keeping the spaces between blades too small to fit fingers - a regulation yet to be proposed by the commission.
The developing CBSC policy on such standards includes three levels of possible commission interaction with private industry:
Liaison work, including CPSC staff attendance at two or three meetings of an outside organziation. The CPSC staff can provide the industry with valuable information and data on the risks of injury from specific products.
Monitoring, which includes keeping abreast of the standards development process, and reviewing the minutes of meetings and draft standards.
Participation in regularly attended meetings of the group developing standards and actual help in developing the standards.
The commission also is looking at the role of voluntary standards in the formulation of mandatory standards.
"The commission believes that a proper combination of voluntary and mandatory standards can bring a greater payoff in increased product safety than either type of standard alone," said the CPSC, in announcing the development of guidelines.
Sometimes, the commission pointed out, adequate voluntary standards, combined with independent certification programs, "may support a conclusion that a mandatory standard is unnecessary."
An example of that occurred last month, when after two years of study and outside testing by Underwriters Laboratories of Chicago, the CPSC decided that for the most part television set manufactures had implemented adequate safety standards on their own and mandatory regulations would not be needed.
The commission has said it might consider evaluating "on a case-by-case basis, voluntary standards that could replace development of a mandatory standard addressing the same product."
Another industry involved in setting its own standards has been the toymakers - mostly Mattel, Inc.
Beverly Stinnett, Mattel's consumer adviser, said her firm has pioneered voluntary toy safety standards.
"We make sure that toys are safe even after they are broken," she said. "We try to make sure there are never any jagged edges or small parts exposed in toys for younger children."
Other safety standards in the toy industry cover elctrical shock, thermal hazard and toxicity.
But Mattel's voluntary standards transcend the issue of safety into other areas of consumerism.
"We are the only industry with television advertising standards." says Stinnett.
"We recognize that we advertise to children, who can't always differentiate between fantasy and reality," Stinnett says. "Joe Namath can sell panty hose, but not football games to children."
She said no television advertising aimed at children should use celebrities, fantasy, language that in any way directs children to ask parents to buy a certain toy, special lighting, speeded up or slow motion, comparative advertision, costumes that are not part of the toy, special camera lenses or trick angles or toys used in an unsafe way.
"We even have a six-second spot at the end of every commercial showing the toy out of its packaging," Stinnett said, "and we tell them if there are any battery requirements and if they are or are not included."
"I defy anyone to show me a toy commercial that tells kids to tell their parents to buy anything," Stinnett said.
Other industries have in the past or now are working on voluntary standards for safety.
The American Society for Testing and Material shelps set standards for such things as bath tub and shower structures, cigarette lighters, juvenile products and others.
The National Swimming Pool Institute, the International Skateboard Commission, Upholstered Furniture Action Council, the International Snowmobile Industries Association, Canvas Products International, and dozens of other industry-sponsored trade organizations have successfully developed voluntary standards.
TV & CHILDREN - Federal Trade Commission chairman Michael Pertschuk and his Federal Communications Commission counterpart, Charles Ferris, are teaming up in an effort to tame television advertising aimed at children.
Such advertising is estimated in excess of $600 million a year. In a speech to a consumer group last week, Pertschuk charged advertisers with "using sophisticated techniques like fantasy and animation," to "manipulate children's attitudes."
The move indicates a distinct change in tone from the last administration. Under the Republicans, a request by consumer groups to ban television drug ads because of their effects on children was denied because, according to the FCC:
"In the absence of empirical evidence to support the claim of a causal connection (between misuse or abuse of drugs and televised advertisements of over-the-counter drugs) it would be unreasonable and arbitrary to accept the idea that otherwise lawful advertising should be prohibited."
INVESTOR DISPUTES - The Securities Industry conference on Arbitration has filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission a proposed uniform system for the resolution of small claims' investor disputes. The plan is a simplify the industry's arbitration system to permit greater public access.
The proposed system would permit small investors to take a dispute involving less than $2,500 to a single arbitrator for resolution without need for a formal hearing. The fee would be $25 and hearings could be held at a location convenient to the customer.
The small claims rules are only the first of several changes in the uniform arbitration system for all securities industry complaints.