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Saferproducts.gov, now a year old, is an excellent way to find out about unsafe products and file reports on ones that you own

posted by Caroline Mayer, May 7, 2012 More by this author

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Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer


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I’m a little late in sending my good wishes, but here’s a “Happy First Birthday” to saferproducts.gov, a website that could be very helpful to you.
 
Launched by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in mid-March 2011, saferproducts.gov is the first government-run site where consumers can post their product-safety concerns and read reports filed by others. It aims to prevent you from buying a potentially hazardous product, and to let you see if other people have experienced the same problems you’re having with products you own.
 
Saferproducts.gov covers thousands of consumer goods, everything from baby products to kitchen appliances, from shoes to sports helmets. And it's more than a forum for searchable complaint reports. You can also search for recalls and other consumer bulletins from the U.S. government.
 
In its first year of operation, saferproducts.gov received 6,565 reports — about 550 a month — of problems with products. More than a third of them involved appliances, in particular electric ranges or ovens.
 
Consumers ages 41 to 50 were the largest group reporting products that caused injuries (18 percent), with 51- to 60-year-olds close behind (16 percent), according to a study by the watchdog groups Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) and Kids in Danger.
 
Before saferproducts.gov was launched, you could file safety complaints with the safety commission, but they were made public only if there was a product recall. And a recall could happen only after a company approved it.

That secrecy long troubled consumer activists, who maintained that the public should be aware of product problems as they occur — the way they can learn about unsafe cars at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration site.
 
Congress mandated what became the saferproducts.gov site in 2008, after a number of highly publicized recalls. But some business groups persistently and ferociously opposed the creation of the database. They argued that public listings could be vague, inaccurate, unsubstantiated and misleading. Beyond that, they feared that a government-run site would give a single complaint the air of legitimacy, even if the problem turned out to be a result of consumer misuse rather than a manufacturing defect.
 
Some of these concerns remain, says Rosario Palmieri, vice president of regulatory policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. The database “is not necessarily representative of products or product categories, so if consumers are trying to use a database to figure out what brands to purchase or avoid, they’re unlikely to get much helpful information,” he says.
 
But not all industry groups are as dubious as they once were.
 
Consider this statement, which the Toy Industry Association emailed to me: “The toy industry is pleased to see that consumers are actively using the CPSC database. With an estimated 3 billion toys sold in the U.S. each year — and billions more already in the home — the very small number of toy-related complaints in the database clearly demonstrates that consumers are confident in the safety of toys. … The CPSC and its staff have been working hard to assure and improve the integrity of the database ... this is a big project that will need constant attention.”
 
Consumer advocates have found the site an excellent research tool for protecting the public. Consumers Union used the database as a key source in its recent investigation of appliance fires, finding more than 850 reports.
 
And today's Viking dishwashers recall is partly due to complaints filed on saferproducts.gov. The CPSC had already been focusing on kitchen appliances, due to the large number of complaint reports on the site. Then a Viking dishwasher complaint came in and the company agreed to a recall. The system "worked the way it's supposed to work," says safety commission spokesman Alex Filip.

Last summer, you could have read numerous complaints on saferproducts.gov about pourable gel fuels used in outdoor decorative firepots, which caused explosions and fires. This was before the government announced gel fuel recalls.
 
“The database is doing its job,” says Filip. None of the dire predictions — like a consumer campaign against a single manufacturer — has happened over the past year, he adds.
 
Consumers do misidentify products or list the wrong manufacturers about 10 percent of the time. “But we get those corrected,” Filip says.
 
If you want to report a problem on saferproducts.gov, you’ll need to describe the product; name its manufacturer, importer or private labeler; and describe the incident or the risk related to the use of the product. If you can include the product’s model and serial number, all the better. Filling out the information online takes about 10 minutes.
 
Once a consumer files a report, the safety commission has three business days to forward it to the company that markets the product, which then has 10 business days to respond to the agency before the complaint is posted publicly. Companies can post a public response to the complaint — and about half the time, they do. They might recommend the consumer do certain maintenance or safety inspections and might offer replacement parts. (If the wrong manufacturer was named in the complaint, the safety commission will try to find the right one and resend the complaint, starting the 10-day clock all over again.)
 
So join me in wishing happy birthday to saferproducts.gov. And if you haven’t used the site yet, give it a try. I hope it celebrates many more birthdays in the years ahead.