Office Chair from Hell Finally Recalled

After years of subjecting an unsuspecting public to an office chair with “welds” that break, flipping the occupant backwards, Office Depot, the exclusive seller of the sudden ejection machine, is recalling 1.4 million units sold between 2003 and 2012. According to a release issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the office supply company had received 153 reports of the seat plate weld cracking or breaking, including 25 contusions, abrasions, injuries to the head, neck and a fractured back and hip.

That hip fracture was sustained by Nancy Losey of San Antonio, Texas, who in March 2010, was sitting in a Gibson chair when it suddenly collapsed. The chair was manufactured by the Wonderful Year Furniture Company, imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company, based in Boca Raton, Fla, and sold by Office Depot.  The seat plate underneath her chair had separated from the chair base, because of a weld failure at that juncture. Ms. Losey fell to the floor and broke her hip, requiring a hip replacement surgery.

 In October 2012, San Antonio attorney Paula Wyatt, who represented Losey in a product liability case against Swinton Avenue Trading, set this resolution into slow motion, by writing to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission alerting them to Losey’s injuries, and the amazing similarities between the Gibson and the Biella Office Chair, which bore the same product registration number and same bad weld in same critical place, but had already been recalled in April 2012. At the time, the Biella only had 11 complaints, compared to 18 between 2009 and 2010, for the Gibson. But, there were fewer Biella’s out there – 307,000 units. Under that recall, the remedy was a $55 store card – the price of the chair.

 The CPSC opened an investigation, but there was no immediate action. And today there was no immediate response to our question: Why in the heck did this take so long? CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson did say:

"CPSC produced a humorous video a few years ago to promote the use of SaferProducts.gov and it involved a man falling off of an office chair.  The video was based on actual incidents and today's recall of a related hazard with office chairs is another example of the importance of reporting safety incidents via SaferProducts.gov."

The Safety Record Blog gave Wyatt an assist by writing about this evil piece of furniture (see Office Depot Declines to Launch Recall for a Chair that Launches Occupants Backwards and CPSC Investigates the Chair Office Depot Tried to Forget), and highlighting the frustrations of one Jesse Clackum, who blogged about her fruitless attempts to make the Swinton Avenue Trading Company take responsibility for the collapsing chair. In late 2006, Clackum, based in Florida, was one of the Gibson Leather Office Chair’s hapless victims. Her version of a Swinton Avenue Trading Company office chair, retailing at $119.00, was only 14-months old when it collapsed after the weld at the base of the chair failed. Clackum immediately contacted Office Depot looking for restitution, but the office supply retail giant blew her off, and told her that she should have bought the extended warranty.  Clackum tracked down the manufacturer – the Swinton Avenue Trading Company, an entity which turned out to be unreachable – no phone number, just a PO address.

As the 6(b) Turns

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has voted to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking removing the “unnecessary and unjustifiable,” in the words of Acting Commission Chairman Robert Adler, re-notification procedure which forces the commission to seek the manufacturer’s blessing every time it releases the same information about a product to a different source.

The rule is designed to rid the commission of situations in which, for example, two reporters working on the same story query the commission about a product a week apart. The commission staff dutifully sets off on the ten-day path, through the manufacturer, before it can deliver an answer to the first reporter. A week later, the commission is required to take all of the same steps – even though the manufacturer has already vetted it for inaccuracies – to give the second reporter the same information.

“This is not in keeping with the acting chairman’s aim for the CPSC to be more transparent while following the law,” says commission spokesman Scott Wolfson. “The onus is still on the agency to ensure fairness and accuracy, that principle does not go away. But this rule change would ensure more efficiency and we’ll be able to serve the public faster.”

In the Information Age, consumer product manufacturers have been unusually successful at keeping the public information regulations surrounding product defect positively medieval. While consumers have myriad Internet resources to find out if a particular product is any good, when it comes to finding out if it is safe, consumers are still at a disadvantage. Section 6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act – beloved by industry, reviled by consumer advocates -- gives manufacturers a lot of control over what negative information the CPSC can disclose about them. The CPSC cannot release information that might be considered trade secrets or “misleading” and “inaccurate” information.  The CPSC can disclose the existence of an investigation, under procedures designed to ensure the accuracy of whatever information is made public. The CPSC gives manufacturers 10 days to review any statements about their products and typically the two entities release agreed-upon language.

A Compliance Investigation on Home Elevators: Going Down

It took six weeks of near-daily asking, but the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has finally allowed a statement on its actions regarding home elevator entrapment hazards to trickle out of the bedrock that is 6B (the section of the Consumer Product Safety Act that allows manufacturers to control the flow of information from the CPSC.):

“The agency has an active and ongoing compliance investigation regarding the safety of residential elevators and the entrapment hazard they can present,” the CPSC said.

This “active and ongoing” compliance investigation emanates from a March presentation that Atlanta attorneys Andy Cash and Dave Krugler made to the CPSC staff on behalf of the Helvey family, whose six-year-old son suffered a severe head injury after becoming entrapped in a home elevator on Christmas Eve, 2010. The Helvey’s elevator was a National Wheel-o-Vator, now owned by Thyssenkrupp. The CPSC has jurisdiction over elevators used in residential settings as a consumer product. They are not subject to any mandatory federal standards, only industry-written voluntary standards, which may or may not have been adopted by states as a legal requirement.

And as part of its official statement, the CPSC also said this:

“While CPSC investigates the role and responsibilities of manufacturers and installers when it comes to the safety of residential elevators, owners of residential elevators should take steps to ensure children do not have unsupervised access to in-home elevators.” 

Michael and Brandi Helvey strongly refuted any suggestions that parents are to blame – the classic manufacturers’ response when their mis-designed or mis-manufactured products start causing harm in the marketplace. They had been scrupulous in installing gates on all the stairs, styrofoam covers on the sharp stone corners of the fireplace, childproof kitchen cabinet locks and a front door deadbolt to ensure Jacob couldn’t get out.

New CO Study Shows that Home Generators Can Emit Dangerously High CO Levels

A new study simulating carbon monoxide levels in detached and manufactured homes commissioned by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission shows that that operating a generator for 18 hours is likely to result in high CO exposures whether the generator is in the house or the garage; and that generators that have been modified to limit CO emissions using a shut-off mechanism or other technology can significantly reduce exposure compared to generators without emissions controls.

Last September, our blog Home Use Generators: Dangerous and Behind the Curve documented the rising incidence rate of CO poisonings linked to the use of home generators as extreme weather events and an aging power grid result in more and more prolonged outages. The agency’s response has been to closely track the data and promulgate a stronger warnings rule. Heightened hazard language has done little to dissuade homeowners from putting portable generators in locations that can create significant health risks for home occupants.

The simulation study authors noted that CPSC has recorded 755 deaths from CO poisoning associated with home generators, from 1999 through 2011, with nearly three-quarters of those occurring between 2005 and 2011, and many of which occurred during power outages.

The Elevator Design Hazard That’s Been Killing Children for Decades

On Christmas Eve 2010, three-year-old Jacob Helvey tried to take the small National Wheel-O-Vator elevator in his Atlanta home to follow his mother Brandi, who had gone to the second floor to momentarily move some laundry. The Helveys are protective parents who didn’t allow their son to play in the elevator, so Jacob had never taken it by himself before. He accidentally entrapped himself between the hoistway door, which in home elevators, is a swing-type door that resembles any closet or room door, and the accordion-style door that encloses the elevator itself. Once that outer door closes, it automatically locks – a safety feature to ensure the hoistway door cannot be not opened while the elevator is in operation. It’s an old design that was common in small commercial buildings when elevators had attendants, and is still used today in home elevators.

[flashvideo file=video/BrickmanAnimation.flv image="video/BrickmanAnimationPrevew.jpg" /]

Animation by Dennis Brickman, Engineering Systems, Inc.

Helvey, at 3-feet-2-inches and 31 pounds, was situated with his back against the accordion door, and his head turned sideways in its valley. Brandi could hear a commotion downstairs and summoned the elevator to check it out. As the elevator rose, and re-leveled, Jacob’s body fell through the space between the sill and the elevator car. When it stopped, the elevator was on Jacob’s back, with his head above the sill, compressed for 10 minutes while his mother, Brandi, pried the door open and a neighbor and police used a shovel and 2 by 6 to ease the elevator off his body  He suffered brain damage. Jacob, now five and a half years old, is slowly progressing, say his parents Brandi and Michael.

The Ill of the Grill

If you experience searing pain after searing a steak on the grill, a small wire grill brush bristle may be to blame. Tristin Beck of Mount Lake Terrace, Washington and Brittany Berg of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, were among the most recent cases to hit the news. Both teens wound up in a hospital operating room after accidentally ingesting a filament of grill brush wire embedded in the food they had been eating.

This phenomenon gained prominence last year, after U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer and Consumer Reports joined together to call on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to determine whether grill brushes were safe and to warn consumers of the potential hazard, based on incidents that occurred in New Jersey and Washington State. The Centers for Disease Control followed up with an item in its Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report (WMMR) authored by a team of Rhode Island emergency room doctors and radiologists documenting the not-so-rare occurrence of grill brush wire ingestion.

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Triple Threat? The GAO Audits Saferproducts.gov

Three years ago, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission began to solicit the public’s advice and counsel on the development of a consumer complaint database, manufacturers and the purveyors of consumer products forecast the end of capitalism. The database would be full of false reports, besmirching the snowy reputations of good and humble companies, who existed only to serve their customers according to the highest standards of retail integrity. And as this pool of complaints spread and deepened, tort lawyers would cast their lines, hooking cases with no actual merit but heavy with potential to drive said good and humble companies out of existence.

They stamped their feet and waved their fists, but the database was mandated as part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. A few rearguard actions were mounted to kill its funding, but they met with no greater success.

Saferproducts.gov debuted in March 2011. If you are afraid you missed the apocalypse, no worries. It didn’t happen. According to a rather mild – dare we say boring – Government Accounting Office report, the rumors of the free market’s demise at the hands of a consumer compliant database were greatly exaggerated. In fact, few consumers have actually used Saferproducts.gov to report an incident – only 12,030 from April 2011 to January 2013. The GAO, which conducted the performance audit from July 2012 to March 2013, found that more than 97 percent who used the website to report an alleged product failure identified themselves as consumers. In more than half the cases, the reporter identified him or herself – or a relative (parent, child, spouse) as the victim.

Most of the consumers who test drove the website for the GAO auditors found it easy to use. None of the group had heard of Saferproducts.gov before, and only a few understood the basic mission of the CPSC. Some were put off by requests that reporters register with the website. A few suggested helpfully that the website would be more aptly named Unsafeproducts.gov. (Now would that go over big with industry.)  

The Fallout from Fire Pots Continues, Will Regulations Follow?

On July 4, three people were severely injured in Del Mar, California, when a firepot exploded as it was re-fueled, spraying the viscous alcohol-based gel on victims sitting less than 10 feet away.

According to a July 12 report in the Del Mar Times newspaper: “One of the victims suffered third-degree burns over 50 percent of their body and had to be transported via helicopter to a hospital. The other two victims each suffered second and third degree burns over 20-30 percent of their body and were taken to the hospital via ambulance.”

In December 2011, a luckier consumer reported to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s public consumer complaint database, SaferProducts.gov:

“I purchased Firegel pourable Citronella from Bed Bath and Beyond. I went to pour some more in my fire pot and I guess it was still hot. The gel shot out, caught the bottle of firegel on fire and caught my patio chair on fire. Luckily it did not get on my skin and I put the lid on the bottle and it went out. I was also able to stomp my chair out but it was ruined.

Despite a total of 15 companies yanking the product of its shelves, and September 2011 announcement that nine manufacturers and distributors had recalled fire pot liquid fuel gel, fire  pots and their contents continue to represent a danger to consumers. And, the spectacular fallout from a patio ornament that had debuted about three years earlier continues to settle over the business, litigation and regulatory landscapes.

This week the CPSC announced its 2013 operations plan. Within the planning document is a brief mention that the agency would continue its technical review of the safety of fire pots and fuel gels in support of a potential rulemaking. In December 2011, the agency published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, but took no further regulatory steps this year. In several speeches, commission Chairman Inez Tennenbaum has noted. “Our rulemaking is exploring the question of whether it is possible to make gel fuel safe for consumers to use...”

Office Depot Declines to Launch Recall for a Chair that Launches Occupants Backwards

Riddle: What’s the difference between two office chairs made by the same Chinese company, sold by the same big box retailer, with the same registration number, with the same bad weld that sends users flying backwards when it breaks?

Answer: One was recalled in April 2012 and one wasn’t.

Bonus Answer: The chair that wasn’t recalled actually garnered more complaints than the one that was!

This is a riddle not easily solved – especially by consumers unfortunate enough to have purchased the Gibson Leather Office Chair from Office Depot. In March 2010, Nancy Losey of San Antonio, Texas was sitting in a Gibson Leather Office Chair, manufactured by the Wonderful Year Furniture Company, imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company, based in Boca Raton, Fla, and sold exclusively by Office Depot, when it suddenly collapsed. The seat plate underneath her chair had separated from the chair base, because of a weld failure at that juncture. Ms. Losey fell to the floor and broke her hip, requiring a hip replacement surgery.

The Gibson Leather Office Chair has the same design and product registration number as the Office Depot Biella Office Chair, which is manufactured by the Wonderful Year furniture company, imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company, based in Boca Raton, Fla, and sold exclusively by Office Depot. But in April, Swinton Avenue Trading Company was forced to recall 307,000 Biella chairs. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission press release, Office Depot had received 11 reports of the breaking chairs and falling consumers with injuries. Consumers could go to Office Depot for a $55 store card – the price of the Biella chair – to replace it or to be used for other Office Depot merchandise.

In October, Attorney Paula Wyatt, who represented Losey in a product liability case against Swinton Avenue Trading, wrote to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission alerting them to the similarities between the Gibson and the Biella. Same product registration number, same bad weld in same critical place. A couple of key differences: Office Deport got more complaints – 18 – about collapsing Gibson chairs between 2009 and 2010, and the Gibson retailed at $39.00.

Whatever Happened to Company Doe?

For now, Company Doe – the first to launch a court challenge against the publication of a complaint in saferproducts.gov, the publicly accessible database mandated under the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, will remain anonymous. A July ruling by a U.S. District Court judge, made public yesterday, maintains the seal on any records that identify the company, the product or the facts of the dispute.

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