Mandatory Window Blind Rule Advances

After two decades of fruitless interaction between the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the window covering industry, the commission voted last Friday afternoon to officially put one step forward toward a mandatory standard.

The vote was unanimous to publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

“It speaks to the new tenure of Chairman [Elliot] Kaye to make this a priority,” says Kaye’s spokesman Scott Wolfson. “From the chairman’s perspective, the status quo has been broken and we are on a different path than that of the past few years. Chairman Kaye believes in what the law calls for — a robust voluntary standard. But, there is evidence the voluntary standards process is not working to the benefit of the consumer. He is ready to lead and the staff is ready to act.”

This is all a nice way of saying that the commission finally wearied of going to meetings of the Window Coverings Manufacturers Association and suggesting standard changes to prevent children from being strangled by window blind cords, only to be patted on the head and ignored.

According to the injury and death data analysis prepared by the CPSC staff, and outlined in the briefing package, 11 children are strangled each year from window blind cords – an average that has remained unchanged for many years.  The CPSC’s emergency department-treated injury data (National Electronic Injury Surveillance System or NEISS) found an estimated 1,590 children received treatment for injuries resulting from entanglements on window covering cords from 1996 through 2012.

In May 2013, a consortium of safety advocates had had enough. Citing the availability of alternative designs, the consistent death rate and the failure of the voluntary standards-setting process, the group, including Parents for Window Blind Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Kids in Danger, Public Citizen, U.S.PIRG, Independent Safety Consulting, Safety Behavior Analysis, Inc., and Onder, Shelton, O'Leary & Peterson, petitioned the CPSC to promulgate a mandatory rule to protect children from the preventable strangulation hazard.

“It’s wonderful to see the commissioners banding together and stepping up to the plate, but it’s been a long time coming,” says Linda Kaiser, founder of Parents for Window Blind Safety. The Kaisers’ one-year daughter Cheyenne Rose died in 2002 after she was strangled by a window-blind cord.  “This should have been dealt with a long time ago. Now the technology’s there, but the industry is still dragging their feet. This sends a message to industry that the CPSC is serious.” (See Parents for Window Blind Safety produced video "In an Instant")

On October 8, the Commission unanimously voted to grant it and allow the staff to prepare a briefing package in advance of a second vote to publish an ANPRM. At the time, GOP appointee Ann Marie Buerkle expressed “significant reservations about whether a mandatory standard for window coverings could be justified under the Consumer Product Safety Act.” In a statement issued after the October vote, Buerkle gave the standard Republican response to all things regulatory – no need for rules:

All of us at the Commission are keenly aware of the tragic deaths of young children that continue to occur all too often as a result of corded window coverings.  According to the staff’s preliminary analysis, however, the annual risk of a fatal strangulation from the corded window coverings sold from 1996 to 2010 barely exceeds one in a hundred million units.  Moreover, that risk is already declining as older products are gradually being replaced with the better products that are available now, and it will continue to decline as even better products become available in the future and safer alternatives become more affordable.   

Translation: Not that many children die, what’s the rush? We’ll just wait for everyone to re-decorate!

A Long History of Neglect

The purpose of this ANPR is to collect information related to a potential mandatory rule – although at this point, it is difficult to determine anything the commission doesn’t know about this issue. Strangulation by window cords has been captured in the technical and medical literature since at least the 1945. Other medical journal articles in the 1980s recognized his hazard. Asphyxia by rope or cord strangulation – including those of toys and mobiles, for example – accounted for 25 percent of all pediatric deaths prior to the 1980s.

In 1997, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the first epidemiological study specifically on window cord strangulation death. Using data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance system, the study estimated that 359 children were strangled by window cords in the U.S. and that nearly half – 49 percent – were not being reported to the CPSC. By this count, nearly one child was strangling in window cords every two weeks, with the vast majority of the deaths occurring in children three years old and under. The CPSC thought that this study was significant enough to issue as a separate press release in June 1997 to alert parents to the danger, and re-issue it in 2011.

The CPSC itself has been gathering data on this problem since 1981. A 1981 Commission staff report about accidental strangulation of children under five years of age, noted 41 deaths from window blind cord strangulation and identified window covering cords as one of the products most frequently associated with child strangulation. In a 1994 effort to re-examine this hazard, the commission counted 175 fatal window cord hangings since 1973, with 45 deaths in the previous three years. In 2004, the CPSC, working with the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, analyzed fatality data from 1996 to 2002 and found 79 fatal incidents associated with window covering products for which in-depth investigations could be completed.

Data cited in the December 31 briefing package tallied 184 reported fatal strangulations and 101 reported nonfatal strangulations from 1996 through 2012 involving window covering cords among children 8 years and younger. On average, at least 11 fatal strangulations related to window covering cords occurred per year in the United States from 1999 through 2010, among children under 5 years old; there were another six non-fatal injuries.

Twenty Years of Warnings

The CPSC has been warning the window coverings industry to get it together at least since March 1994, when it expressed its concerns to the Window Covering Manufacturers Association (WCMA). CPSC representatives declared that “remedial action must be taken immediately,” and warned that it would not “limit its options,” if no voluntary standard was forthcoming.” The WCMA agreed to work with the CPSC to develop a voluntary standard under the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) process.  The main result of this collaboration was, in October 1994, to “encourage consumers to eliminate or tie down loops in their window blinds.” Manufacturers agreed to redesign pull cords to eliminate single tassel loops, with implementation to be effective by January 1995.

But this agreement failed to eliminate the hazards. In November 2000, the industry went back to revise the voluntary to include provisions to address inner cord accessibility. The revised standard, ANSI/WCMA A100.1-2002, was published in 2002. That revision also failed to stem the tide of fatalities. In 2004 the CPSC published another analysis of window blind cords, and, as part of that incidence analysis, made further recommendations. The agency made it plain that the goal of the voluntary standard was: “to remove any potential for these foreseeable circumstances to occur,” and criticized the current voluntary standards as inadequate.  Again, the CPSC made it clear that the industry should focus on solving this problem once and for all: “However, staff believes that the window covering industry should develop cost effective products that eliminate the strangulation hazard.”

In 2009, the CPSC launched one of the largest remedial actions in its history, recalling 50 million Roman shades and roll-up blinds. In November 2010, then CPSC Chairman Tenenbaum followed up with the creation of a 30-member taskforce composed of representatives of industry, the CPSC and the safety advocacy groups, to invigorate the process and draw up new guidelines to be completed within a year.  In June 2011, Tenenbaum reiterated that the purpose of a revised voluntary standard was to eliminate the strangulation hazard, and she urged the WCMA “to facilitate, rather than resist, the strengthening of some of the proposals currently being considered in the technical working groups. Although the voluntary standard is not yet complete, I remain very concerned that some of the revisions to the voluntary standard will fall short of eliminating the risk factors causing death and injuries, especially among toddlers and young children, from exposed cords on window coverings.”

They ignored her, too, prompting the consumer advocates on the committee to quit in September 2011, complaining that industry was only working to reduce, rather than eliminate the standard, and that their input had not been seriously considered.

The industry’s approach has been to tinker at the margins of the voluntary window blind designs standard and gussy-up its warnings to customers – but only going so far as to declare its intention to reduce the hazard, but not eliminate it. The first version of the voluntary standard was published in 1996 and is designated as ANSI/WCMA A100.1-1996 American National Standard for Safety of Corded Window Covering Products. The original voluntary standard required the elimination of cord loops and restriction of continuous loops and chains as a tension device. The industry redesigned the pull cords to eliminate single tassel loops, which became effective in January 1995.  Since then, almost all horizontal blinds have been manufactured with individual cords that terminate in separate tassels. Revised versions were published in 2002, 2007, 2010, and 2014.  The 2010 version was amended in response to the 2009 Roman shade recalls. The voluntary standard states: The objective of this Standard is to provide requirements for covered products in 1.3 that reduce the possibility of injury, including strangulation, to young children from the bead chain, cord, or any type of flexible loop device used to operate the product.”

Despite regular trips to the voluntary standards committee conference room, pull cords and continuous loops continue to strangle children.

The CPSC staff reviewed 249 In-Depth Investigation files concerning window cord strangulation incidents against the most recent version of the voluntary standard and found that it would have addressed the hazards in 25.7 percent of these cases. In the vast majority – 57 percent – the new standard would have been ineffective. (There was insufficient information to draw any conclusions for the remaining 17.7 percent.)

Meanwhile, there have been numerous alternative designs available for years – break-away operating cords, manual and motorized cordless window coverings, cordless shades; wand operators; cord retractors, and cord shrouds. Nearly all manufacturers offer cordless product lines.

The industry has balked at making designs safer for the same reason they balk at everything – cost. The CPSC found that manually operated cordless window coverings may cost about $15 to $130 more than similar corded window coverings; motor-operated window coverings were even pricier, at more than $100-$300 higher than the prices of corded window covering. Some wand-operated vertical blinds cost about the same as corded versions; others appear to cost about $10 more than corded vertical blinds.

Averting the Severe Decree

The industry still has time to pull itself up by the continuous cord, and atone for two decades of foot-dragging. The CPSC rulemaking process is required to begin with an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, rather than a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which considerably lengthens the time from proposal to rule.

Wolfson, speaking for Kaye, held out hope that the window covering industry could roll out a robust voluntary standard and make the whole bad business go away. Toy makers were able to pull this off with the ASTM standard for loose magnets – a robust voluntary standard that drove down the death and injury incidence rate and became the industry go-to.

“There is still time to re-open their standard and seriously take into account the concerns we have with pulls cords and continuous loops,” Wolfson said. “We will continue to work on the two tracks. It worked with the magnets. A robust standard that clearly provides a technical solution – that’s the end-goal. The reality is that a good voluntary standard can be done faster than a good mandatory standard.”

Rachael Weintraub, Legislative Director and General Counsel for the Consumer Federation of America thinks it unlikely that the window-coverings industry will establish a stronger standard – although it is possible. The voluntary standard for baby walkers – issued in 1997 after a lot of pressure by safety groups — completely eliminated the hazard. (The CPSC final mandatory rule, established in 2010, adopted the voluntary standard.)

“But that is one case amongst many others that have not,” Weintraub said. “The history of this industry and this standard is an unwillingness to address the underyling issues. We think a mandatory standard is ripe. The industry has had decades to address these issues and they have not.”