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5 minute read

There’s three things that mark out button batteries as a critical product safety hazard – the severity of the injuries, the ongoing rate of those injuries and the breadth of exposure to the product.

Swallowing a button battery can be catastrophic. Many deaths have occurred around the world, including two in Australia. But for those who survive such injuries, the damage can be severe and long-lasting. Young children are the most likely to suffer injuries, so the impact on the rest of their lives (and their families’) can be dramatic.

With children suffering serious, life-changing internal injuries, the case for strong regulatory action is well justified.

It is clear that specific product regulation on both products and replacement batteries is essential now to help address the problem. I believe the ACCC’s proposed mandatory standard will go a long way to address the hazard.

Regulatory options

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has published a consultation paper on the options for a mandatory standard*. Submissions are open until 30 April 2020.

The paper outlines three options to improve the safety of button batteries. The options are not exclusive of one another, but can be grouped together to form a suite of measures.

Option 1 proposes Secure compartments, which I believe are essential in all button battery powered products. It also involves a requirement for product integrity to prevent batteries coming out of products in normal day to day damage, such as a product being dropped.

Option 2 incorporates Option 1, plus Child-resistant packaging of replacement batteries. This is an essential strategy to limit the risk of children accessing batteries, especially fully-charged new batteries.

Option 3 is on Labelling and is in addition to Options 1 and 2. Product information is vital to help with consumer awareness and education. With young children most at risk, constant alerts and reminders need to reach new cohorts of parents and caregivers

The ACCC has set out the case for tough new regulatory measures and has provided a sound rationale for doing so.  I believe Option 3 is the appropriate measure to address the multifaceted button battery hazard.

12 months appears to be a reasonable lead time for the new mandatory standard, although some allowance for COVID-19 disruptions may be needed.

Product design

Product design is always the most effective way to achieve product safety. The three main proposed design requirements (Options 1 and 2) – secure compartments, product integrity testing and child-resistant battery packaging – will address the primary access problem.

Option 2 goes beyond the existing industry code and several existing overseas standards in its proposal for compartment security requiring a tool (such as a screwdriver) to change batteries. I agree with the ACCC’s rationale that access only by use of a tool is the best form of security. Consumers may find some inconvenience in such access requirements, but it does appear to be the optimum method of securing compartments.  

Allowing compartment access by coin is less reliable, as young children are often capable of using this method. It also appears that some coin closures are more likely to become loose over time.

I also agree that the concept of two simultaneous actions to open the compartment can be confusing for suppliers. It may also lead consumers to misuse and not correctly replace compartment lids.

Achieving compliance for many goods that currently comply with the coin or two-actions measures would require redesign for the Australian market. However, I consider the additional cost is justified by the seriousness of the hazard.

Product labelling

As a product hazard, button batteries have widespread penetration throughout the community. Product labelling, marking and other consumer information form part of a suite of measures and, especially with button batteries, remain important even when products are physically compliant. Constant consumer reminders are needed due to the residual risk posed by loose batteries and product damage, which needs to be managed in homes and elsewhere. Labelling will also help educate consumers who have old non-compliant products in their homes.

The ACCC proposes significant requirements to achieve consumer information is made available – on product, on packaging and online. Businesses should examine the proposals to assess how it might affect production and costs.

Including the Australian Poisons Information Centre’s contact info is essential to provide time-critical advice if someone has swallowed a battery. The PIC is established as the primary source of correct advice, but this is not universally understood. Some consumer sites recommend urgent transport to a hospital, but such action may be counterproductive if the hospital doesn’t have the necessary diagnostic equipment, or if the patient is in a remote location.

Monetary costs

In the bigger picture, I believe any extra production costs for suppliers will be modest. I am concerned that some suppliers may argue that no new costs can be accommodated in our current economic situation. I don’t believe the downturn should prevent or water down the introduction of a mandatory button battery standard. In economic terms, costs of a sub-optimal regulation would only continue to be borne by the health system (as outlined in the discussion paper), which itself will be suffering from the COVID 19 crisis.

Suppliers wishing to avoid additional production costs may choose to purchase or design products that use different batteries, other power sources, or unpowered products. As such the mandatory standard would achieve an overall reduction in button battery exposure.

Compliance

The ACCC is proposing to take a principles-based approach which:

  • sets out safety principles that need to be met rather than specifying detailed standards
  • incorporates external instruments for compliance tests only
  • includes administrative guidance which provides examples of relevant clauses in external standards that are considered to comply with each requirement

A principles-based approach will need to be taken with caution. Clarity on what is required will be vital, especially given the variety of products to be included in the mandatory standard. As the vast majority of button battery powered products are made overseas, importers will need to convey clear instructions to their suppliers.

Business stakeholders would be wise to discuss the proposals with their testers before submitting comments to the ACCC.

Overall, introducing a mandatory standard will have a positive impact on products purchased new and would dramatically reduce exposure, leaving much less reliance on consumer vigilance and action. The current rate of injuries should take a dramatic decrease. The ACCC’s paper is well argued using evidence-based rationales. I consider their proposed standard is well justified and essential.

*Please note that the ACCC proposal for a mandatory standard is separate from the work of the industry working group on button battery safety, which produced the existing industry code (and which had until late 2019 been revising the code). It is also separate from current actions underway at Standards Australia to write an Australian Standard for button battery safety. This action is a pre-requisite for proposing an ISO international standard.

There’s much more about button batteries on this website. Read more.