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.)  

CPSC Investigates the Chair Office Depot Tried to Forget

Last month, The Safety Record Blog wrote about the Gibson Office Chair, a product sold exclusively by Office Depot, and plagued with a bad weld that often broke as occupants leaned backwards.

The Gibson was, structurally, a clone of the Biella leather desk chair, which Office Depot recalled in April. Both shared the same product registration number, were manufactured by the Wonderful Year Furniture Company in China and imported by an outfit called the Swinton Avenue Trading Company, of Boca Raton, Fla. If a slew of Internet commenters can be believed, the Office Depot staff routinely told disgruntled consumers with broken chairs to seek recompense from the importer, which was conveniently inaccessible to the public.

In April, the retail giant was silent on the fate of the Gibson model. Today, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission told SRS that the agency had opened a new investigation into the Gibson to determine if it “poses a similar risk to consumers.”

Further, Office Depot took pains to inform the CPSC that “there was an error in the identity of the importer of the Biella brand leather desk chairs. Office Depot® is the correct importer for the Biella brand leather desk chairs and also for the chairs that are the subject of the new investigation,” CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said  

Office Depot had recalled 307,000 Biella chairs, retailing at $55. In October, Attorney Paula Wyatt informed the CPSC of the similarities between the Gibson and the Biella. Wyatt represented Nancy Losey in a civil lawsuit against Swinton Avenue Trading. The San Antonio, Texas woman needed a hip replacement after the seat weld in her Gibson Office chair snapped, sending her to the floor. The biggest differences between the Biella and the Gibson were price and have been how many complaints Office Depot got about the two. The Gibson, retailing at about $40 attracted 18 complaints, compared to the 11 complaints that got the $55 Biella recalled.

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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CPSC Considers Slight Change to Policy of Announcing Defects; World Ends

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering a policy change to the way it publicly confirms that it has opened a defect investigation, leading the manufacturing community to issue a DEFCON 1 alert.

Currently, under the Section 6b of the Consumer Product Safety Act, manufacturers have a lot of control over what negative information the CPSC can disclose about them. The CPSC cannot disclose information that falls within the envelope of 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.

“What is very important to take into account is that we adhere to 6b,” says CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. “It is not a wall to disclosure. It’s a hurdle. As the Chairman (Inez Tennenbaum) has stated: “We do follow that law and we follow it in very prescribed ways.”

 In the past, the CPSC waited until the press took an interest in an alleged defect to initiate the 10-day review period. The proposed policy change, explained to manufacturers and their trade associations at a CPSC Safety Academy held in Bethesda, Maryland late last month, was an alternative to “approaching a company in a rushed situation, in which the media is asking for immediate confirmation, which at times we cannot give because the company is given 10 days to respond. We are considering a policy approach that starts the clock at an earlier stage. The same rights are given, but we prepare ahead of time for potential requests.”

The National Association of Manufacturers, lost no time in firing off a letter with apocalyptic overtones:

Home Use Generators: Dangerous and Behind the Curve

In late October 2011, Connecticut was hit by a rare early-season snowstorm that left more than 860,000 businesses and homes in that state without power. And some state residents who didn’t or couldn’t wait for the power to be restored, tried to survive the outage with the use of a portable generator. From the day of the storm until November 9, the Department of Public Health received 143 reports of carbon monoxide poisoning – nearly nine times the number of reports – 16 – for the previous three years combined. Five individuals died and 41 required a hospitalization; the majority of incidents were caused by portable generators for home use.

In writing about this surge in the Connecticut Epidemiologist, the researchers noted: “Outbreaks of CO poisonings following winter storms are well documented and continue to be a problem.”

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a potentially deadly gas found as a byproduct of internal combustion engines that is odorless, colorless and tasteless. According to the latest figures from the CPSC, from 1999 to 2011, 695 – nearly 80 percent – of the 881 fatalities from 513 incidents were associated with generators. And CO poisonings from home generators will continue to be a problem, because the only countermeasure mandated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission are warnings. While other engine-manufacturing industries, such as automotive and marine generators, use available technology to significantly reduce their CO emissions, makers of portable generators for home have been relying on capital letters and pictograms to avert injury and death.

The data suggest that dramatically worded warning labels don't do enough to depress the injury and mortality rate. According to CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson, there was a noticeable decline in CO incidents involving generators after the recent Mid-Atlantic derecho and Hurricane Issac. Nonetheless, the CPSC has been exploring technical solutions to the CO hazard since 2006.

Button Battery Ingestion on the Rise

Every three hours, a child under the age of 18 will show up at an emergency room to be treated for button battery ingestion and that rate is accelerating, according to a new study published in the online version of Pediatrics magazine this week. The first description of a button battery ingestion fatality in the medical literature was published in 1977, when a two and a half-year-old child swallowed a camera battery. Today, the nation’s emergency rooms see an estimated 3,289 children annually for button battery ingestion, according to Pediatric Battery-Related Emergency Department Visits in the United States, 1990-2009. Over the 20-year period of the study, the researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio examined a nationally representative sample from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and found that such visits had significantly increased during the last eight years of the study.

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