National Consumer Congress 2019 held in Melbourne, 14 March 2019

The Maze, Safety Pin, Design icons

This is Part 2 of the product safety panel discussion transcript from the 2019 national consumer congress. The full audio recording is available on podcast.

Moderator – Delia Rickard, Deputy Chair, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
Dr Ruth Barker, Pediatrician and Director, Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit
Gail Greatorex, Owner and Principal, Product Safety Solutions
Erin Turner, Director, Campaigns and Communications, CHOICE

Gail Greatorex, Product Safety Solutions

Gail Greatorex: I note Ruth (Barker) has referred to some of these issues as ‘landmines in the lounge room’ in today’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which I think is a great term.

My focus on this panel is going to be from a different perspective obviously than Ruth – I want to look at the changing nature of the consumer product market. I want to look at where the responsibility lies, the limitations of our current reactive system for product safety, and opportunities for change.

The current consumer product market is increasingly complex and demanding.

Gail Greatorex

In terms of things that are bothering me, I’ve got three things I want to talk about. The current consumer product market is increasingly complex and demanding. Have a think about this:

  • There’s now nothing stopping your brother, your sister, your next door neighbour from becoming an importer/retailer. What do they know about product safety?
  • How many companies make up the supply chain for a product that gets made in say, Bangladesh, all the raw materials, the colorants, the assembly, the different parts of the product. And when is it tested? So the market (supply chain) is remote
  • And if these inexperienced importers are selling into Australia, but they’re also selling into somewhere like New Zealand and also to Canada, they may well have to meet three different standards and that complicates all of the processes at great deal

So product safety is becoming more and more complex to manage, to achieve and to govern.

Product safety is, no doubt, a three way deal. We know suppliers are the ones who design and make the products. Governments can legislate and also facilitate safety, and consumers have their own role to play as well of course. We do know that suppliers have got the best opportunity to ensure safety of the product through the design and the manufacture of the products. But it bothers me that there’s still a general reliance on government to ensure product safety, that onus needs to be shifted squarely on to the suppliers.

There’s currently no V.E.T. qualifications in Australia for how to achieve product safety.

Gail Greatorex

My last point under what bothers me, is the lack of infrastructure. There’s currently no V.E.T. qualifications in Australia for how to achieve product safety. For example, if you work in retail, there’s units of competency: there’s a Cert. III in bicycle maintenance, there’s a Cert. IV in pet styling and there’s diploma level for online brand management, but there is no Cert. IV or diploma in how to get your products onto the market and make them safe. The infrastructure’s just not there and product safety is the poorer for it.

(The points made by Gail Greatorex in this session are covered in more detail in a 2018 white paper and related article Paradigm shift needed for product safety in Australia)

Delia: I didn’t know about the Cert IVs – that’s fascinating – and I think there’s an opportunity out there for someone to do something about it or for some of us to do something about that. We’ll follow that up.

Erin, what’s bothering you about what you’re seeing?

Erin Turner, CHOICE

Erin: Lots. So much you have to admit that sometimes it’s hard to focus in on a short list of what’s bothering you, but I’ll make two points.

Our largely voluntary self-regulatory system just isn’t protecting consumers.

Erin Turner

The first is the scale of the problem and the second is that our largely voluntary self-regulatory system just isn’t protecting consumers.

In terms of the scale, just looking at button batteries – these things are everywhere. Ruth covered it really well. And you’ll see a lot of coverage today, hopefully in the news tonight. We’ve released a story today at CHOICE. We looked at products across a range of retailers to see do they have a button batteries and can kids easily access them.

There is a mandatory standards for kids’ products, specifically toys for kids under three and they have this requirement that you have to lock a button battery down with a screw or something similar. And there’s a voluntary code for other products that have button batteries in them. It says something quite similar, but it’s just not being complied with.

Of the seventeen products we looked at, ten had easily accessible button batteries. And they’re things that are really common, you probably have them in your home: kitchen scales, thermometers, light up dog leads. These things are, I think if you were shopping for them, you wouldn’t necessarily think that they’re dangerous. You’re not being warned about these things and companies are just not taking responsibility.

And I know that there’s a range of small companies and small importers and retailers that are part of the problem. But the results we released today we’re talking about big companies: Dymocks, David Jones, Harvey Norman, JB Hi-Fi – companies that know better and should be doing better on this issue.

We need to beef up this system with something like a general safety provision to really protect things.

Erin Turner

And that brings me to my other point is that self-regulation just isn’t working. I think this is a theme when you start applying across the consumer movement. We’ve seen it in finance and came through so strongly in the Royal Commission. If we don’t have monitoring, enforcement and big strong penalties that apply when a company deliberately does the wrong thing, you’re not going to see widespread compliance.

And we see this across product categories. CHOICE is known for its testing, particularly our testing with kids’ and babies’ products. We keep seeing problematic products. And then when we tell companies about it, we get very varied responses.

Portacots we test regularly. We tested 12 of them last year, 10 failed key safety tests that sit between mandatory and voluntary standards. And those tests are things like limb entrapment, a breathability test to see if some of the material could choke an infant, and a firmness test, which is really important for SIDs (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) – if a child rolls over on the mattress and it’s not firm enough, again there’s a risk of suffocation.

We let all 10 of those companies that failed those tests, know about our results and only one acted – Dymples products. Big W to its credit, lightning fast, took it off the shelves. The others shrugged their shoulders and pushed back and disagreed with us, quibbling about something that should be more important.

This is the safety of children and that’s something that’s frustrating me. We need to beef up this system with something like a general safety provision to really protect things.

Go the other parts of the transcript: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4