Then came the federal government shutdown, and the agency that handles product recalls, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, went dark. The agency — best known for policing flammable pajamas and hazardous cribs — never got the chance to announce the DeWalt recall. It hasn’t issued a recall since December 20 — a period when it might normally issue 10 to 20 defective-product alerts.
The shutdown, the longest in U.S. government history, also has prevented the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from announcing recalls for faulty automobiles, child car seats and tires.
So while government recalls of bad food and drugs continue during the shutdown, efforts to stop dangerous toys, tools and tires are going without government oversight. Even a quick end to the shutdown is expected have long-running effects as regulators work through a backlog of risky-product notices.
“People have no idea if they’re using something that is dangerous,” said Nancy Cowles, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Kids in Danger.
Now, companies are unsure about what to do. Some are launching their own recalls without federal oversight, but it is not clear how thorough those efforts are. There is concern that some companies might be reluctant to take action. Two years ago, Viking Range failed to tell regulators about problems with its cooking ranges spontaneously turning on, leading to a $4.65 million penalty. Others have resisted recalls. In 2014, Takata fought regulators pushing for a national recall of its defective air bags, a fight it soon lost.
“I’d be concerned about some of the hazards that could be out there,” said Mike Gentine, a former safety commission attorney working at the firm Schiff Hardin.
Consumers are left without the biggest megaphones for alerting them to potentially harmful products. Federal agencies act as information clearinghouses, helping the notices to be picked up by the press and social media. The agencies also tell corporations what kind of recall actions are needed and how broad they should be.
In some cases, companies are going it alone. Hyundai and Kia last week said the companies were recalling nearly 170,000 vehicles to address potential engine fires. The affiliated companies also said they would launch a less expensive service campaign for 3.7 million more vehicles at risk of fire. The automakers said in a statement that they had been discussing the potential actions with regulators before the shutdown. But it’s unknown whether regulators would have signed off on the recall’s final design.
“No one is there at NHTSA to object,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Auto Safety, using the federal agency’s acronym. His group had been warning of the Hyundai and Kia dangers since June.
In just the past week, Conair recalled Cuisinart vertical waffle irons because of wiring problems, and a company called Mustang Survival recalled inflatable water rescue vests because they sometimes don’t inflate. Bicycle maker SRAM also asked customers to immediately stop riding some of its Electra bicycles because of brake problems. Specialized recalled some of its bicycles because of frame problems.
But none of these were announced by the U.S. product safety commission.
“We are, at this stage, in limbo,” said Steve Moulton, general counsel for JumpSport, a California trampoline maker that saw plans for its voluntary recall of some small indoor trampolines derailed by the government shutdown.
Groups including Kids in Danger and Consumer Federation of America have been forced to hunt elsewhere for recalls. Canada’s government is open, and Health Canada issues its own product safety recalls. In normal times, companies that sell on both sides of the border try to coordinate the separate recalls so they occur at the same time.
For now, the Canadian list provides a clue to what’s being missed in the United States.
Other companies post recall notices on their corporate websites. Polaris issued a recall earlier this month for an off-road vehicle because of braking problems. The company called it a “stop-ride notice” — even though it was clearly a recall. That caught the eye of Rachel Weintraub, general counsel at the consumer federation.
“They’re not even using the word ‘recall,’ ” Weintraub said.
Under normal circumstances, companies are required to report dangerous products to federal regulators within 24 hours. But the product safety commission is closed — another casualty in a record-setting government shutdown that began five weeks ago. A skeleton staff is working in case of an emergency.
While cars and products are not getting recalled, separate federal agencies that recall tainted food and drugs are still on the job, adding to the potential confusion.
At the product safety commission, the shutdown has not only hit recalls but has also curtailed work on safety regulation and research. Weintraub said a meeting scheduled for Wednesday to discuss voluntary standards to reduce the strangulation risks of window blinds was canceled because of the shutdown. The agency also normally has staff at ports to inspect imported shipments for dangerous consumer products.
The lack of federal regulators hasn’t stopped companies from making product recalls — but it has limited their publicity and undermined the recall’s purpose.
Companies can be reluctant to make a move without input from the product safety commission. The agency discourages companies from issuing “silent recalls” — when a company tries to take a product off the market without attracting attention. The terms of each recall are carefully crafted.
“I hope this doesn’t put them in a position where they think they have to wait,” said Gentine, the former safety commission attorney.
JumpSport tried to get its recall completed before the shutdown. Its problem was relatively minor: folding trampolines that needed new user’s manuals and warnings. The company had received eight reports of injuries over seven years. JumpSport decided last week to go ahead with its planned recall. Health Canada issued a notice. So did the company and retailers.
DeWalt, too, went ahead with its own recall of power drills on Jan. 10.
Without federal regulators, companies such as John Deere are left to figure it out as they go. Since December, the company has wanted to recall some snowblower attachment kits sold without a safety manual. On Monday, the company finally announced a product recall — but only in Canada, even though the kits were sold on both sides of the border. Its U.S. website didn’t carry the recall notice.
John Deere spokesman Ken Golden said the company plans to alert its U.S. dealers about the recall next week. It will also post more widespread recall notices — as if the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission were still open.