Don Beachley, the tall and lean president of the Beachley upholstered furniture company, reaches in among the samples of 300 fabrics on hand at his Hagerstown, Md., plant and pulls out a rack of them. Cotton, rayon and combinations of natural fibers, mostly quilted prints, velvets, damasks, brocades. Beachley, whose family has been making furnishings for nearly 100 years, says his customers won't settle for anyting less. They won't abide imitations.
"You get a high-quality customers, and he just won't touch it."
In a few years, even the most finicky buyers may have to. Many natural fabrics may disappear from the market, to be replaced by such synthetics as nylons, polyesters and olefins, and along with them many small upholstery firms who do high quality custom work.
Beachley, a company of 70 employees, is one of FACING REGULATION BY THE U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), A proposed CPSC standard, which could be adopted this year, would require that all upholstered furniture sold in this country resist smoldering caused by burning cigarettes.
The CPSC is expected soon to decide whether the regulation would better prevent deaths and injuries caused by upholstered furniture fires than a voluntary program developed by industry. The regulation has been under study since the Department of Commerce first published a "notice of need" in the Federal Register in 1972.
The commission staff is recommending that before the stricter, more costly government regulation is put into effect, the CPSC monitor for a year the United Furniture Action Council (UFAC) program, which differs significantly from the proposed mandatory standard.The UFAC program prescribes the use of certain fabrics with certain constructions, elminiating the need for regular testing by furniture manufacturers.
Should the commissioners decide instead to proceed with the tougher government regulation, the staff estimates consumers would pay an additional $114 million to $174 million annually for the new materials, design and manufacturing alterations, record keeping and testing required to bring furniture in line with proposed safety standards. UFAC estimates those costs could exceed $1 billion. Reasons for Regulation
The need for federal regulation of upholstered furniture is based on fire and injury statistics collected by several government and private agencies. From the results of a survey of 34,000 households conducted by the Bureau of the Census in 1974, the number of residential fires each year is estimated to be 5.6 million. In approximately 45,000 cases, or roughly 1 percent, upholstered furniture is the first thing to ignite.
About 33,000 of these upholstered furniture fires are caused, primarily, by adults aged 21-64 who allow a burning cigarette to fall and smolder on a chair or sofa. Each year, the commision estimates, such fires cause 1,700 injuries and 500 deaths. Costs from injuries and property loss are believed to exceed $40 million.
Despite these annual losses, industry and some government officials regard the proposed standard as more costly than the expected benefits are worth.
Most of the fires in question, for instance, start in furniture containing high amounts of "cellulosic" fabrics (cottons, rayons and linens) and cotton construction materials. Under the government standard, many such fabrics would have to be tested individually forcigarette resistance.
"There would be no way we could test every one of them," Beachley said. "We couldn't afford the cost of something lkie that."
Said S. John Byington, then CPSC chairman, (in his dissenting opinion against the commission majority that voted to proceed with the regulation in September of 1977): " . . . I am fearful that (the regulation) will significantly reduce consumer choice by limiting design and technical innovation, increase costs by specifying extensive testing and record keeping requirements, and reduce competition by the elimination of many small family-owned firms. And more importantly, these adverse impacts will not be offset by any major increase in safety . . . ." Regulating Cigarettes
The Upholstered Furniture Action Council, made up of such trade organizations as the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers and the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association, is fighting the proposed government regulation. UFAC has resigned itself to some form of change in furniture, and already has received pledges from an estimated 70 percent of the industry to adopt its proposed voluntary standard.
But originally furniture makers called for government regulation of cigarettes instead.
Cigarettes that burn for long periods unpuffed are the ignition source of most slow, smoldering furniture fires. Several patents have been granted to designers of self extinguishing cigarettes. Congress, however, stripped the CPSC of any power to regulate smoking materials.
When the commission was first formed in 1972 under the Consumer Product Safety Act, it assumed responsibility for the Federal Hazardous Substances Act and the Flammable Fabrics Act. In 1975, the Senate Commerce and House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committees decided the CPSC should not be allowed to regulate cigarettes as a hazardous substance and specifically removed tobacco products from CPSC purview in the Consumer Product Safety Commission Improvements Act.
CPSC's only recourse was a regulation requiring "the production, by industry, of upholstered furniture that will not ignite when a cigarette is allowed to burn on it." Endangered Fabrics
The testing standard of the proposed government regulation divides upholstery fabrics into four categories according to the length of char left on them by a burning cigarette. Those in Class A are least likely to burn and include wools, wool blends, vinyl plastics and heavyweight synthetics, such as nylon, olefin, polyester and acrylic. Those in Classes C and D, the most likely to burn, comprise the majority of fabrics made primarily of cellulosic materials, such as cottons, rayons and linens.
Most fabrics on the market fall into Classes A, B and C. Perhaps 50 percent would already qualify for use with current construction techniques under the proposed regulation. Another 25 to 35 percent are categorized as Class D and include most of the "high style" designs. The commission staff, in its 800-page briefing package submitted to the commission last year, said that "unless Class D fabrics can be upgraded by changes in the fiber content, backcoating, or chemical treatment, very few acceptable construction techniques are available."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Southern Regional Research Center, which tested methods of making cotton batting and fabrics smolder resistent, reported that "although the results shown are encouraging, considerable more work remains. Problems of dye change, color fastness and incompatibility with Scotchguard Systems are still to be solved with application to fabrics."
The chemical industry has developed insulating materials that could be placed between D fabrics and stuffing materials. But furniture manufacturers claim that the added labor process of installing them, as well as other smolder-proofing methods being investigated, would be prohibitively expensive.
Warren J. Prunella and Charles L. Smith of the commission's Hazard Identification and Analysis section reported that the changes necessary to upgrade Class D fabrics would cause retail price hikes of up to $26 for chairs and $45 for sofas. Industry estimates exceed $100.
On each fabric that remained Class D, the manufacturer would be required to perform a mock-up flammability test with a fully-constructed furniture piece. Some furniture makers rotate 50 percent of their fabric stock each year. The cost of testing all of them, says Joe Ziolkowski, technical director of the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers, would force manufacturers to discontinue using as much as 30 percent of the available fabrics now classified Class D, or 10 percent of the estimated 8,000 different fabrics said to be on manufacturers' shelves.
Said Jerrold A. Wexler, executive vice president of Selig Manufacturing, one of the country's foremost makers of contemporary upholstered furniture: "It would very definitely affect the consumer's choice because it would most probably eliminate the use of many of those fabrics we consider to be in the mainstream of the fashion industry today. If consumers knew what was being discussed, they'd scream like hell."
Testing requirements would virtually wipe out the so-called "COM" (customer's own material) business that allows home owners and decorators to furnish fine fabrics -- in the $20- to $40-a-yard and up range -- that compliment design schemes. "There are many manufacturers whose business is virtually all COM materials," Selig said.
Beachley said as much as 30 percent of the furniture he makes is covered with buyer-provided fabrics.