2.3 Protect consumers from unsafe products
Identify and implement nationally integrated approaches to minimise the risk of injury and death from safety hazards in consumer products.
Emerging hazards and recalls
The ACCC uses an intelligence-led approach to assess current and emerging safety risks. In 2013–14, our product safety activities included a particular focus on unsafe imports and chemicals in consumer products.
We review a range of data sources to identify issues that may present a safety concern. Data sources include mandatory reports of serious illness, injury or death, recalls that have taken place internationally, and information received from the community. The ACCC assesses information received and, where warranted, takes action including:
- negotiating the recall of goods
- educating industry and consumers
- negotiating voluntary changes to packaging labelling or product design
- working to introduce changes to voluntary or mandatory requirements
- introducing and/or working to implement changes to product safety mandatory standards and bans.
Suppliers are required to notify the Minister if consumer goods are recalled. These notifications are received by the ACCC and we often work with suppliers on the strategies that will be put in place to retrieve the goods. The ACCC also initiates and negotiates recalls where safety concerns are identified.
We received a total of 496 recalls in 2013–14, 267 related to general consumer goods, 158 related to motor vehicles, 64 related to food and seven related to therapeutic goods.
Of the 267 that fell within our area of responsibility, 91 we actively identified and negotiated. For example, we negotiated three recalls associated with ‘fire wallets’ (these are trick wallets that flame when opened). The recalled wallets contained asbestos.
The number of recalls we have monitored has trended slightly upwards over the past five years as shown figure 3.1.
The graph below sets out a comparison of the recall activity in categories between 2012−13 and 2013–14. The number of recalls noted below is higher than the number of recalls received as recalls may appear in a number of categories.
The ACCC received 2601 mandatory reports in 2013–14. These are reports suppliers are required to submit when they become aware of serious injury, illness or death associated with a consumer product. We referred 1257 reports to other regulators and assessed 1344 ourselves. Twenty recalls resulted from products referenced in mandatory reports.
ACCC initiated safety outcomes
After undertaking detailed assessments, we referred a number of issues to the Poisons Scheduling Committee or to standards technical committees to include in existing standards or to help develop new voluntary standards. These include:
- the need for ember protection on evaporative air conditioners
- improved warnings on fuel for ethanol burners
- finger entrapment issues on strollers
- flammability issues associated with wheat bags
- carbon monoxide emissions associated with portable gas generators
- stability concerns associated with televisions.
In many cases these changes will result in changes to product requirements.
The ACCC also continued to work collaboratively with industry to introduce changes to product design and labelling. As a result, for example, improved warnings on button battery packaging are beginning to come onto the market. The ACCC also expects to see improved labelling on charcoal briquettes.
Identifying and managing risks posed to consumers through chemicals of concern is a priority. One example is the testing to identify and address concerns with microbiological activity in 112 ‘aqueous-based’ cosmetic products used around the eyes. Products with unacceptably high microbiological activity can cause skin reactions and infections. We examined products sold in stores and online. While the majority of tests did not raise concerns, we immediately negotiated recalls with three suppliers of such product.
The ACCC also negotiated voluntary product changes by industry in response to chemical issues. For example, Heritage Brands changed product packaging on its false nail applicator product, ‘Nailene—Calcium gel tip nail kit’. The changes ensure that the ingredients list on the product reflects the product’s formulation and is prominent and clearly legible for consumers. This action followed a consumer injury which led to the ACCC identifying deficiencies in the mandatory product ingredient list.
Another important example of the work undertaken in relation to chemical issues is the ACCC’s work in relation to azo dyes that is discussed here.
Between 2010 and 2013, Infinity Cable Co Pty Ltd imported and supplied substandard electrical cables to hardware retailers, electrical wholesalers, builders and electricians. The cable insulation is likely to become prematurely brittle, leading to risk of electric shock and possibly fires. While it currently presents a low safety risk the substantially reduced service life means the risk will increase over coming years. Infinity Cable Co went into liquidation after concerns were identified by state and territory regulators.
The ACCC formed the Infinity Cable Task Force to develop and implement a national response for thousands of consumers with potentially unsafe electrical wiring. The Task Force consists of officials from electrical safety regulators, building regulators and consumer affairs agencies from across Australia, chaired by the ACCC. It is liaising with relevant experts, the remaining suppliers of the cable, and associations representing electrical contractors and builders.
Retailers and wholesalers of the cable have agreed to recall and rectify installed cable early in the 2014−15 financial year. Consumers will contact their electrical contractor or builder, who will then liaise with the retailer or wholesaler to arrange cable replacement or to otherwise ensure that the installation is safe. A number of suppliers replaced installed cables in 2013−14. In the absence of specific recall insurance, some businesses are concerned about the cost of replacing installed cables.
The ACCC makes recommendations to the Minister responsible for product safety, The Hon Bruce Billson MP, Minister for Small Business, about amending or developing product safety regulations to address product hazards with the potential to harm consumers.
Product safety standards
New standards began for:
- portable pools—covering labelling requirements (30 March 2014).
A new service standard for corded internal window coverings was made in 2013 and will commence on 1 January 2015. This was the first service standard to be made since the power was introduced with the implementation of the Australian Consumer Law in January 2011.
An important new issue that progressed significantly in 2013–14 and will be the subject of consultation early in 2014–15 is the hazard associated with certain ‘azo’ dyes.
No standards were repealed during the reporting period.
The information standard requiring graphic health warnings on tobacco products was amended (July 2013), as was the baby walkers standard (15 April 2014) which covers construction, performance and labelling requirements.
The ACCC periodically reviews product safety standards to ensure that they are workable in a changing economy. The reviews are part of our ongoing contribution to the Australian Government’s policy objectives, including its deregulation agenda.
The ACCC consulted on four reviews in 2013–14: bean bags, hot water bottles, motor cycle helmets and child restraints. The reviews examine opportunities to reduce compliance costs for business and the community while maintaining appropriate safeguards. The reviews should culminate in recommendations to the Minister in 2014–15.
The ACCC progressed a number of other reviews of existing standards in 2013–14. Reviews of pedal bicycles, household cots, bunk beds, and prams and strollers will result in public consultation early in 2014–15.
Product safety bans
A national interim ban on the supply of a range of dangerous synthetic drugs started on 18 June 2013. The ban prohibited the supply of 19 consumer goods containing synthetic drug substances and was needed to give state and territory health and law enforcement agencies time to update their drug enforcement laws to comprehensively outlaw these products that can kill or harm people.
The national interim ban lapsed on 13 October 2013 once state and territory laws were in place. Synthetic drugs are effectively banned via Schedule 9 of the Poisons Standard, which is now incorporated in state and territory drug laws. This action to protect consumers against unsafe substances demonstrates the effectiveness of a swift national response to consumer safety issues.
Button battery injuries
Button batteries power many common household products from remote control devices, to hearing aids, bathroom scales and flameless candles.
If swallowed, button batteries can cause significant, permanent injuries and even death. Coin-size batteries can get stuck in a child’s throat where the saliva triggers an electrical current. This causes a chemical reaction that can severely burn tissue in as little as two hours. Serious injuries may also result from the insertion of button batteries into areas including the ears, eyes and nose.
In Australia an estimated five children a week present to an emergency department with a button battery related injury. Sadly, in July 2013, a four-year-old Queensland child tragically died after swallowing a coin-size lithium battery.
In 2013–14, the ACCC worked with industry to improve the safety of these batteries through voluntary improvements, including child-resistant packaging and warnings that highlight the dangers if the batteries are swallowed.
The battery industry gave strong support, with two thirds of suppliers, including all the major brands, promising to improve their button battery warnings, packaging or both. The first child-resistant packaging for coin-size lithium batteries was introduced in 2014. Some suppliers have also introduced products with the new warnings recommended by us. Others will do so over the coming months.
Since 2012, we have also been working with Kidsafe and industry on The Battery Controlled campaign to raise consumer awareness of the dangers associated with coin-sized lithium batteries. Its impact has been substantial. Our research showed a significant increase in overall consumer awareness of the issue in Australia from 27 per cent in 2011 to 72 per cent in November 2013.
In June 2014, we partnered with international product safety regulators in an International Awareness Week on button battery safety. We coordinated the week through the OECD and involved more than 20 jurisdictions. Those participating included Australia, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, the European Commission and a number of European member countries, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and the United States of America.
To achieve our product safety compliance objectives we use three integrated and flexible strategies:
- encouraging compliance by educating and informing consumers and businesses about their rights and responsibilities under the Act
- enforcing the Australian Consumer Law by resolving possible contraventions administratively and by litigation
- working with other agencies to implement these strategies.
The ACCC continued to provide guidance to industry in relation to existing and new product safety regulations.
This year we developed supplier guidance for the baby walker standard to help businesses to meet new requirements. We also engaged with suppliers leading up to the start of the portable pools standard on 30 March 2014.
Portable pools are popular with Australian families but, regardless of their shape or size, can pose serious drowning risks to young children. We worked with state and territory consumer protection agencies to scrutinise portable pools in over 550 stores nationwide. We explained the changes and their obligations in a supplier factsheet. We helped consumers understand the risks through a consumer campaign over summer 2013–14. To ensure that the risk was dealt with holistically we also disseminated consumer safety messages via different media in summer 2013–14. Further surveillance of portable pools is planned now the new standard is in place.
We have commenced preparations for similar action in relation to the new corded internal window coverings services standard, which comes into effect on 1 January 2015.
We receive information from a range of sources that suggests possible non-compliance with mandatory standards and bans. These matters are assessed and we take action where warranted issuing warnings or clarifications, instigating broad compliance or educative activity, or taking appropriate enforcement action.
The ACCC regularly surveys the market to identify compliance concerns in relation to existing regulations and to assist in the identification of new hazards. We work in partnership with ACL regulators and other organisations to coordinate and conduct joint surveillance, testing and compliance to address safety concerns. We also respond to reports from other regulators, including concerns identified by the NICNAS.
During 2013–14, the ACCC conducted 2413 wholesale, retail, online and showbag inspections and 13 924 product inspections against 41 mandatory safety standards, bans or product types. Inspections resulted in suppliers withdrawing 99 product types from sale and recalling 38 product types.
National sunglasses compliance campaign
During the year, the ACCC coordinated and worked in partnership with ACL regulators to conduct joint surveillance, testing and compliance to address safety concerns in relation to sunglasses.
A mandatory standard is in place for sunglasses as exposing eyes to high levels of sunlight can cause serious and sometimes irreversible eye damage. Lens category labelling is required and is important as it allows consumers to choose the right level of eye protection for both sunglasses and fashion spectacles.
In August and September 2013, 15 000 product lines were tested, and over 2400 sunglasses were removed from sale. In October and November 2013, follow-up surveillance activities were undertaken, with 86 per cent of those suppliers who had previously supplied non-compliant glasses now supplying only compliant glasses.
Market surveillance was supported by the Safe Sunnies consumer education campaign to increase consumer awareness about the importance of choosing the right pair of sunglasses. As a part of the campaign the ACCC partnered with the Optometrists Association Australia, to develop a new online tool to inform consumer choice. Market research undertaken to develop the campaign identified that consumers had a high level of concern about eye protection and helped us to develop an approach that achieved pleasing take-up rates.
Product safety enforcement
In 2013–14, we finalised two product safety enforcement matters:
- Brand Republic Pty Ltd paid five infringement notices totalling $51 000 and provided a court enforceable undertaking relating to supply of children’s nightwear garments that did not comply with the mandatory standard. Brand Republic operates three GAP retail stores selling clothes for men, women, children and babies. Between 22 July 2011 and 26 May 2013, Brand Republic sold five different children’s nightwear garments that did not comply with the mandatory standard for children’s nightwear. Brand Republic has undertaken that it will only supply products that meet the required standard, and will obtain specific evidence to demonstrate the compliance of products subject to a prescribed safety standard. It also undertook to publish recall notices on the internet, in-store and in certain newspapers, and implement a trade practices compliance program.
- Bunnings Group Ltd provided a court enforceable undertaking for selling window blinds that failed to comply with mandatory safety standards. The ACCC found that Bunnings sold Matchstick Blinds that did not carry mandatory safety warnings on the retail packaging. Bunnings undertook to implement a range of compliance initiatives as a part of the undertaking. It assured the ACCC that it will strengthen its current compliance program for window coverings, including pre-shipping inspections, introduce better training for management and buyers, and hold regular audits. Bunnings has already recalled over 3600 Matchstick Blinds sold between January 2013 and March 2013.
Clothing dyes put to the test
The ACCC and state and territory consumer product safety regulators play an active role in investigating potential chemical hazards in consumer products. While many chemical substances are essential in small amounts for the human body to function, larger amounts can be harmful. ‘Azo’ dyes are a large class of very effective synthetic dyes used for colouring a variety of consumer goods such as foods, cosmetics, carpets, clothes, leather and textiles.
Studies have concluded that, while health risks linked to consumer exposure to textiles and leather goods coloured with certain azo dyes (including benzidine-based dyes) are likely to be very low, the carcinogenic nature of the dyes gives cause for concern. As a result, exposure to certain azo dyes, including benzidine-based dyes, should be minimised or eliminated. This year, we took action to examine and address hazardous dyes in commonly used consumer products such as imported clothing and textile articles.
Overall, the results were reassuring: over 97 per cent of randomly selected articles tested were within the acceptable limit in initial testing although this proportion decreased when further more targeted testing was undertaken. Five articles from the first tranche of testing were above the acceptable limit, a result we immediately brought to the attention of the suppliers who initiated recalls.
The ACCC then undertook further testing, focusing on jeans and bedding. In total there were 12 voluntary recalls by suppliers of 37 product lines, major retailers recalled nearly 208 000 articles of clothing and linen in early 2014.
An effective partnership with the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) helped us achieve this strong safety outcome for Australian consumers. The impetus for the initial survey came from a recommendation from the NICNAS which assessed the human health impact of 11 benzidine-based azo dyes. We continue to work closely with industry and other stakeholders to manage consumer safety issues associated with azo dyes in the longer term. We are consulting with industry and the public about whether regulation is needed to ensure better safety outcomes in this area.
The ACCC emphasised its active education and awareness program on safety issues. This has included a clear focus on the use of online tools and materials and the use of social media.
We utilise social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, to continually build a strong following on product safety issues. By using social media we reached a wide Australian audience during major safety campaigns, such as our campaign on quad bike safety. It proved similarly effective in publicising critical product safety issues and recalls, such as azo dyes and microbial contamination in cosmetics. More than 10 000 individuals and organisations currently follow our Product Safety Facebook page while more than 4000 follow us on Twitter.
The ACCC has actively engaged with online concerns in relation to product safety and this has included the development of education materials.
In March 2014, the ACCC released a new publication, A guide for business: Consumer product safety online, which advises online sellers about best practice and marketplaces about consumer product safety protections in Australia. We published the guide because we were concerned that some online suppliers, particularly those based overseas, may not be aware of Australia’s product safety laws. The guide identifies compliance steps all online businesses can take to ensure the supply of safe products and avoid product recalls, consumer redress and reputational damage. These steps include:
- being aware of Australian product safety laws
- not supplying banned products
- only supplying products that comply with mandatory safety standards
- giving consumers enough details to make safe and informed decisions through good quality product descriptions, product images, ingredient lists and age-grading information on websites.
In 2013–14, the ACCC undertook a mix of major and less intensive education campaigns.
We recently collaborated with child safety organisation Kidsafe and Olympian Blake Gaudry to raise awareness about the importance of trampoline safety in the It’s flipping important campaign. Quad bike injury was another major campaign target.
Joint education initiatives with international jurisdictions included the International Product Safety Conference in October 2013 and the International Awareness Week on button battery safety in June 2014. Both raised worldwide awareness of product safety issues and their impact on global communities.