WASHINGTON–Safety advocates staged a walkout today to protest stalemated negotiations with industry officials over correcting a hazard with window blinds that has killed dozens of U.S. children in recent years.
The action was taken by the four consumer representatives on an industry committee developing a new voluntary safety standard to prevent strangulation deaths of children on window blind cords. The safety advocates bolted a meeting of the panel in Washington, claiming that industry leaders reneged on a pledge to eliminate the hazard.
One of those consumer representatives, Linda Kaiser, a Missouri mother whose one-year-old daughter was strangled in a window blind, said in an interview, “I do not understand why these men are so unmotivated to fix a problem that’s easy to fix.”
Kaiser, who with her husband founded the advocacy group Parents for Window Blind Safety, said industry representatives had previously promised to come up with designs that raise and lower window blinds without cords or that keep the cords sheathed. “They were going to take the pull cords off the products, and we were so happy to hear that,” she said.
Instead, however, the industry representatives – working on a new proposed safety standard due to be completed by Oct. 31 — are pushing for less specific rules to minimize the hazard. They are calling for adding a warning label to the products, and otherwise are recommending “performance-based” rules and testing that give manufacturers latitude in coming up with safety fixes.
Another one of the consumer representatives who walked out of the committee meeting, Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America, faulted the manufacturers for coming up with “limited changes” that “do not reduce or eliminate the strangulation hazard posed to children.”
Ralph Vasami, executive director of the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, said during a break in today’s meeting that there never was any agreement reached to eliminate pull cords or to keep them sheathed. “The industry has not reneged on any deal at all. We are committed to this process,” he said.
Vasami said the “performance-based standard” that manufacturers want would give companies the latitude to develop the best approaches to safety.
“We’re trying to allow for some level of innovation because we know we can’t think of everything today that someone may come up with tomorrow, and we don’t want to preclude that performance,” he said.
Although some manufacturers have come up with solutions that remove or tuck away pull cords, industry observers say the industry doesn’t want to be required to bear the added costs. Vasami refused to comment on that point.
In a prepared statement released after the meeting, Vasami expressed “great disappointment” that “consumer safety advocated abandoned the review process.” He said his organization’s members remain committed to working with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and others “who share in our goal to update the safety standards.”
The hazard has been known to U.S. regulators since at least the early 1980s, when a federal study linked 41 child strangulation deaths to drapery and blind cords.
Last year, in an unusual joint letter calling for action, consumer safety officials in the U.S., Canada and Europe said the number of deaths since 1999 related to corded window coverings was 120. In addition, officials said there were 113 non-fatal accidents in the U.S., and more than 50 million Roman shades and window blinds have been recalled.
The industry’s new proposal is to be delivered next month to the American National Standards Institute, which reviews the rule-making process but not the effectiveness of voluntary standards. The Consumer Product Safety Commission could develop a mandatory standard if it concludes that industry action isn’t effective.
The head of the commission, Inez M. Tenenbaum, wrote to Vasami in June to express her disappointment with the standard-writing process. “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,” she wrote.
This afternoon she issued a statement voicing the same concerns.
“It troubles me greatly that the revisions to the standards for roll up blinds, Roman shades, and other window coverings may fall far short of what I expected,” Tenenbaum said. Before the process is completed, she added,”I expect to see proposed standards that are strong and eliminate the risk of strangulation to young children.”