Ann Brown believes in common sense. "Common sense reduces injuries and saves lives," she says. And as the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, those are two goals very dear to her heart.
Although she has been on the job for just over one year, she is already gaining a reputation as a dynamic leader who can get things done. A recent survey of consumer leaders gave high marks to the CPSC for its efforts to protect and encourage health and safety. "The woman who gave CPR to the CPSC" is how one leader put it."As I waited for my Senate confirmation, I found myself with plenty of time to read and study CPSC's statutes and regulations. I was somewhat surprised to discover that the process of regulating was expensive, labor-intensive and time-consuming, and I knew I would have a very limited budget for the agency," she told consumer leaders and educators gathered for a consumer conference in Washington, D.C., recently. "While some people may have expected me to come to CPSC to regulate everything that moves, I found that I had better options for achieving that most important goal of reducing deaths and injuries."
It did not take a revolution, she said, to know they could minimize burdensome bureaucracy and maximize accomplishments. "I am very familiar with striking a balance between regulation that is necessary, and faster, cheaper alternatives that also protect the public."
Every year in this country, consumer products are associated with an estimated 29,000 deaths and 33 million injuries. Although the cause of these accidents is more often user behavior than product failure, the costs - in terms of medical care and lost manpower - are very high.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission was created in 1972 "to protect the public against unreasonable risks of injuries and deaths associated with consumer products." The agency has broad authority to issue and enforce safety standards, set performance requirements and issue warnings or instructions for use of consumer products. In addition, CPSC regulates products covered by the Flammable Fabrics Act, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, the Poison Prevention Packaging Act and the Refrigerator Safety Act.
Underlying the work of the agency, says Brown, is the philosophy "that the responsibility of product safety must be shared by government, industry and consumers in what I have called the product safety triangle. And I use this philosophy every day as I choose among many options for my ultimate bottom line - to save lives.
"While I prefer to have industry work with us voluntarily, I will not hesitate to go the mandatory route when necessary."
During her first year as chairman, the agency moved forward on bicycle helmets and baby walkers, she said. They completed final regulations for the child-resistant packaging of medicines such as naproxen, lidocaine, dibucaine and mouthwash containing alcohol. And they conducted a number of voluntary product recalls - among them the largest clothing recalls in the history of the agency.
One of the recalls involved flammable skirts manufactured in India, which were distributed by dozens of manufacturers and importers. The other involved some flammable fleece garments carried by 2,000 retailers.
"Both failed the Flammable Fabrics Act, which means they burn faster than newspaper. You'd be safer wearing the Washington Post," says Brown.
Recalls, she says, are one of the fastest ways to protect the public. But working with manufacturers to change design can also have long-lasting effects.
"Drawstrings on children's clothing was another product hazard on my agenda. Drawstrings from an untied jacket hood can be a deadly hazard. At least 12 children died and 27 nearly strangled when the strings from around the necks of their clothing caught on escalators, school buses, jungle gyms and other objects.
"CPSC worked with the clothing manufacturers, who for this spring have started replacing drawstrings on necks and hoods with snaps, buttons, Velcro and other closures."
And in January, CPSC issued voluntary guidelines on soccer-goal safety. Twenty-one children have been killed and hundreds injured when moveable soccer goals weighing more than 600 pounds tipped over and crushed them. CPSC developed guidelines, similar to playground guidelines, which will now be followed by all local jurisdictions.
Another January action involved a move to get child-resistant packaging more adult-friendly. The problem with much of this packaging has been that adults have a hard time opening it. So they left caps off or transferred the medicine to packaging that was not child-resistant, and children were being poisoned. There are now some good adult-friendly, child-resistant packages on the market. One involves a system where you simply have to push in both sides, and the lid flips off. Easy for adults, but this is something kids under 5 can't do. It has been tested on thousands of kids.
The CPSC, she says, serves up one of the best values in the federal government. "We cost just 44 cents a household for product safety. That's less than a pack of Life Savers - only we're the real life savers."
In coming months, priorities for the agency include children's products, sports injuries, fire and consumer education.
Much of the work of the CPSC involves children. "The safety of children has been and always will be one of our top priorities," says Brown. "When I became chairman, I started telephoning many parents of children who died from consumer products. I can never get through the painful call without crying. But now I feel a special connection with the grandmother of Jordan, who was crushed by his playpen. Or with the parents of Meghan, who strangled in the loop of the window blind cord that was hanging near her crib. Every person is a human being - not just a statistic."
And every person deserves as safe an healthful environment as possible - something that Ann Brown will do everything in her power to see that they get.