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Senate report faults safety commission for failures related to dangerous baby products, elevators

The Consumer Product Safety Commission was too deferential to industry, putting consumers at risk, the review found

Miana Tompkins holds her son Mason in his room where she used the Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play sleeper — a product popular with parents but recalled after reports of infant deaths. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

An investigation into the Consumer Product Safety Commission by Sen. Maria Cantwell’s oversight staff, launched days after a Washington Post article about problems at the agency, found multiple examples of “inappropriate deference to industry and a failure to use existing statutory and regulatory tools” that put consumers’ safety at risk, according to a report released Thursday.

The report examines how the CPSC responded to safety problems with three products that were the subject of Post articles: Britax’s BOB jogging stroller, Fisher-Price’s Rock ‘n Play inclined sleeper and residential elevators. It criticizes the agency for offering what it calls inadequate remedies for consumers who bought defective products, saying some were “incentive programs to bring the companies involved in the recalls more business.”

The senate investigation was buttressed by internal CPSC records requested by Cantwell’s staff. Cantwell (Wash.) is the ranking Democrat on a Senate committee with oversight responsibilities for the CPSC. The report hints at the potential scrutiny that the agency’s operations and handling of product complaints could receive next year.

“Consumers and their families should have confidence in the products they buy,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Industry and the Consumer Product Safety Commission need to take action to ensure that consumers aren’t buying dangerous or defective products and that those who do receive a real remedy.”

Earlier this year, the CPSC and makers of BOB jogging strollers were criticized for their handling of accidents in which the front wheel of the three-wheeled stroller spontaneously detached. Nearly 100 children and adults were injured from 2012 to 2018, according to the agency.

But the stroller was never recalled after the CPSC backed off from its threat to take serious action against the company. The Post later revealed the commission’s then-acting chairwoman, Republican Ann Marie Buerkle, had hidden the agency’s investigation into the stroller accidents from her Democratic counterparts. Buerkle then pushed the case toward a settlement, which safety advocates criticized as favoring the company.

After hundreds of crashes, this Britax stroller faced a recall. Then Trump appointees stepped in.

The Senate report criticized the CPSC for permitting the company to avoid a recall in exchange for conducting an online education campaign and offering only some consumers other incentives, such as a discount on a new BOB stroller. The report said refunds provide the biggest incentive for consumer compliance, and the agency “should refrain from providing these limited consumer remedies.”

The report also looked at the agency’s handling of the Rock ‘n Play inclined sleeper for babies, which was recalled in April. The recall followed a finding from Consumer Reports that more than 30 babies had died in the product in the past decade.

Fisher-Price said it was offering a refund to consumers, but the report called the company’s claim “misleading and materially inaccurate.” The company provided full refunds only for new Rock ‘n Plays. Older models were replaced by vouchers to buy other Fisher-Price products.

A Post investigation detailed how Fisher-Price invented the inclined sleeper without medical safety testing or input from a pediatrician. That was followed by the publication in October of a study by outside experts hired by the CPSC that called the inclined sleeper’s design dangerous and recommended they be banned.

How Fisher-Price invented a popular baby sleeper without safety tests and kept it on the market, even as babies died

The report by Cantwell’s staff also examined CPSC’s inaction to the risks of children being injured and killed in residential elevator accidents. A Post article revealed the industry has known for decades about the danger posed by a space between the elevator’s two sets of doors and done almost nothing, despite a simple remedy.

The article described how a lack of urgency from regulators and resistance from companies combined to thwart the CPSC from warning the public or demanding a recall.

The Cantwell staff report said the agency’s subsequent actions — which included an agency warning that received little attention and a letter to governors nationwide — resulted in consumers being “left holding the bag.”

Home elevators have killed and injured kids for decades. Regulators won't order a simple fix.

The CPSC has faced repeated upheaval this year — even beyond these product problems.

Buerkle stepped down from her role leading the agency in September, opting not to seek another seven-year term. That left the agency with a party-line split of 2-2 among commissioners. A Democrat, Robert Adler, was selected by the commissioners as the acting chairman. But his tenure is expected to be short-lived.

The White House is considering nominating Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry executive who pushed to relax rules on toxic chemicals at the Environmental Protection Agency, to be the next leader of the CPSC, according to Post reporting.

She would be the third person to run the product-safety regulator in the past year.