Biggest consumer complaints to the CPSC

Appliances accounted for 2,029 complaints in the SaferProducts.gov database

Consumer Reports magazine: January 2013

A consumer sent this photo of his destroyed appliance to SaferProducts.gov.

Appliance problems, including fires, topped the list of incidents filed in 2012 with a federal database that gives consumers a way to report complaints and view timely information about potential product hazards.

Consumer Reports’ analysis of the almost 5,500 complaints that were published online at SaferProducts.gov in the first nine months of 2012 found reports of 14 deaths and 1,573 injuries associated with a wide range of products.

Appliances such as refrigerators, clothes dryers, and dehumidifiers accounted for 2,029 complaints in the database run by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Children’s nursery equipment and supplies ranked second with 339 safety reports. But those incidents included four deaths, higher than any category, including unlicensed recreational vehicles, which were linked to three deaths.

Fire concerns

For appliances, fire was the primary safety problem cited. Not surprisingly, kitchen ranges and ovens topped the list of appliances related to fire hazards, with 304 incidents reported. But dishwashers were a very close second with 277 reports, followed by microwaves and refrigerators with 115 and 102 complaints, respectively.

The numbers echo the findings of our March 2012 report, "Appliance Fires: Is Your Home Safe?" that found that more than 15 million appliance units had been recalled in the previous five years for defects that could cause a fire.

Shoes were also high on the list of complaints with 252 reports, including 185 that required hospital admission, an emergency room visit, or treatment by another medical professional. Many involved “toning” athletic shoes that usually have strongly curved, thickened soles. But they can cause falls and other injuries, according to the reports. The other product categories that ranked in the top 10 for safety complaints were toys; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment; cookware and tableware; furniture; laundry, fabric care, and sewing products; indoor lighting; and grills.

Since SaferProducts.gov was created in March 2011, more than 11,000 reports of harm or safety risks associated with consumer products have been filed.

The database was created by the CPSC under a congressional mandate to allow consumers, doctors, firefighters, and other emergency responders to file publicly searchable reports about potentially dangerous products. Some reports posted on the site also include photos or videos doc­umenting product defects and the injur­ies or damage that resulted.

The CPSC must post consumer safety complaints online within 20 business days of receiving them, but it must first notify manufacturers and give them a chance to respond. If any information submitted is shown to be false or misleading, the complaint must be corrected to appear in the database.

In the first legal challenge to SaferProducts.gov, a company that a federal court allowed to be identified only as Company Doe filed suit in October 2011 to stop the CPSC from posting a report filed by a local government agency about a consumer injury allegedly related to that company’s product. Company Doe contended that the injury report was “baseless” and would cause “irreparable harm to its reputation and financial well-being,” according to an opinion released in October by Judge Alexander Williams Jr. in federal district court in Greenbelt, Md.

Federal appeal filed

The judge’s opinion revealed that he had already decided in the company’s favor after nine months of proceedings that were conducted out of public view with no opportunity for public participation. His ruling also sealed the case, permanently preventing consumers from getting any information about the identity of the company or the evidence presented. In the court document released to disclose the judge’s ruling, portions were blacked out so that no information would be revealed about the company’s name or the nature of the harm alleged. The rationale for the decision was also blacked out.

Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, a public policy institute at Vanderbilt University, says, “If there is an allegation that a company has done something wrong, it is possible a company can rebut that charge, but in this country we have a tradition of open courts allowing us to see the process and hear the evidence, so it is especially disquieting when matters of public interest like this are taken out of public view.”

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is appealing the court’s decision to seal the case, along with Public Citizen and the Consumer Federation of America, two other advocacy groups. The appeal seeking to unseal the records in this case is before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.


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