National Consumer Congress 2019 held in Melbourne, 14 March 2019

The Maze, Safety Pin, Design icons

This is Part 4 of the product safety panel discussion transcript from the 2019 national consumer congress. The full audio recording is available on podcast.

In this Part, the panel discusses what improvements can be made to the current product safety system

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

Delia Rickard: Okay. We’ve established there’s a problem, we’ve established that the current system isn’t adequately dealing with the safety issues that we’re seeing at the moment. I’m interested in each of your thoughts about where we go, what needs to happen.

GSP (General Safety Provision), but also beyond GSP, I think there’s quite a few things including things like the national injury database we need to be debating. Ruth, would you like to kick it off?

Dr Ruth Barker

Ruth Barker: Gail mentioned Accord and it got me thinking about cleaning products that are in your home, and I work closely with the poisons information service. Unfortunately it’s legal for companies to bring in a product such as a cleaning product – they have all the material data safety sheet and stuff before they release that product, but they don’t actually have to share any of that information with the poisons information service.

So you get a new product on the market, your two year old child or grandchild swallows it and you ring Poisons Information for some advice and they can’t look up what’s in it.

So that’s a huge flaw. It’s one that I’ve flagged already with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). I think it straddles regulators – in a way that the poisons get regulated in a slightly different way. But it’s still marketed, you can buy it at Coles and Woolies (supermarkets) and they should be obliged to put out the remedy because they are selling a poison. Most of those products that they’re putting out there are a poison. So that’s the first thing.

I think the general safety provision is a great principle with the onus on companies that they have to identify that their product is safe before they release it. Unfortunately, I think the delivery of that principle is going to be challenging because you still need companies to do the right thing.

Products like button batteries, I think we need much more urgent action and we need something like a horizontal mandatory standard.

Dr Ruth Barker

You will still need surveillance and you will still need reporting of cases. However, when you then go to that company and say there’s been an incident associated with this product, you’d then be able to say ‘And can you please demonstrate how your product is safe to be on the market?’ Whereas at the moment I’m still there trying to collect case series. So I think it would be a huge improvement, but I don’t think it’s a silver bullet.

And if you talk about products like button batteries, I think we need much more urgent action and we need something like a horizontal mandatory standard that says any product that contains a button battery needs to have that battery secure and the consumer needs to be clearly aware of what they’re buying and what the risk involved is.

Gail Greatorex

The GSP is not the answer for button batteries. Something needs to happen more urgently than that. I think with button batteries we’re really at crisis point

Gail Greatorex

Gail Greatorex: I agree, just on that point on button batteries, the general safety provision is some time off yet if it happens at all, but it’s not the answer for button batteries. Something needs to happen more urgently than that. I think with button batteries we’re really at crisis point, because Ruth has discovered that there’s actual serious injuries happening far more than we were expecting.

Ruth: We’re seeing one a month. So the data that we’ve been collecting over 15 months, we have 17 cases and half of those have come out of Queensland— so we know that it is still being under reported across the rest of the country. So if you imagine one case like that little girl that you saw (in the video) – with the (saliva) bag (attached to her neck) – one of those a month.

(More information on button batteries is available in other posts on this site, including
Button batteries – more action needed)

Gail: In relation to other improvements that we can make, I’ve got several points I’d like to make.

In terms of the general safety provision, I think it’s the middle cohort of suppliers that I was talking before about – the ones who don’t try that hard to achieve product safety. They’re the ones who need to be influenced to lift their game. And a general safety provision would achieve that. A GSP would raise the profile and the market incentives for product safety and would definitely be a game changer.

Responsible retailers do say to me that when they’re negotiating with their suppliers on making a product safer or even compliant with a standard, it’s much easier to get that negotiation squared away if they can say: ‘Well, the law requires you to do it’, as opposed to ‘We’re just making this part of our contractual obligation’. So having the law in place would make a big difference in that context.

A GSP is not the only measure that we could take.

Gail Greatorex

A GSP is not the only measure that we could take. One option is perhaps explore the idea of having customs declarations at the point of import. And you could do that for high priority, high risk goods.

Someone from a leading retailer said to me last week that his company is just looking to open some stores in the USA and he’s been really impressed that they’ve got a system where before the goods can even enter the country, there has to be a declaration and certification provided that a product is compliant or otherwise safe. So that’s very significant for the USA and I believe it’s working well there. And this fellow said to me that he thought that would be even more effective in Australia than a GSP.

In fact Border Force (Australian Border Force) already has the power to require such declarations and certification for goods entering into Australia and it wouldn’t even need to be on all products.

Obviously there’s a cost to Border Force in administering something like that, but if we could nominate a handful of high priority, high risk products that they could target, then I think that could work and it would certainly have the added benefit of raising awareness by importers given how few products are manufactured in Australia these days. Importers are our key suppliers – it would raise awareness and raise compliance, I think.

Surveillance and enforcement need to be commensurate with the risks and the evidence.

Gail Greatorex

My third point is a plea for balanced and just enforcement. Surveillance and enforcement need to be commensurate with the risks and the evidence. I think it can be counterproductive to have a zero tolerance approach to enforcement, to be inflexible in how any potential breach cases are handled. Product safety is rarely black and white.

To sum up in terms of improvements, I think we actually need a paradigm shift in product safety. My friend who works in OH&S (Occupational Health & Safety), when I talked to her about how the product safety system is, she says, it sounds like what OH&S was 30 years ago. We now know that OH&S has changed dramatically – it’s got powerful legislation, it’s got systems, it’s got infrastructure and it’s got its own funding system and it completely operates in a different realm from what we have.

I think without a paradigm shift, product safety, really will go backwards.

(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: Thanks, and I think that gives us a lot to think about, and talk about afterwards. Erin.

Erin Turner

The number one thing that needs to happen is a general safety provision.

Erin Turner

Erin Turner: The number one thing that needs to happen is a general safety provision. It is the minimum, but it is the first thing I think we need to do. It’s just that simple requirement in law that businesses have to sell safe products.

Until that happens, we can write all of the standards we like, but there will always be loopholes and innovations and exceptions and not the general sense of responsibility that businesses should have – that they have to protect the customers. And that all needs to be very thoughtfully put together.

We’re hoping to see something that applies to manufacturers, importers and retailers, because they all have a role to play. And thinking particularly about the words, my hope is that we see something that is a positive obligation, an obligation to sell safe goods rather than (not) unsafe goods. I just have the credit act at the back of my mind and the words ‘not unsuitable’. I’m sure we can go stronger than ‘not unsuitable’ or ‘(not) unsafe’.

In terms of the other measures that would really help – data, for all regulators a national registry of incidents that happen. But the more we can make that data publicly available, the stronger we can make the system, the more groups like CHOICE can focus their testing on increasingly at-risk areas, and the more the public can get a sense of product safety issues as well.

74% of people already think that there’s an obligation for businesses to sell safe products. It’s so sensible, people just think it’s already done.

Erin Turner

Something we increasingly butt up against and it’s one of the hardest areas for us to campaign in because of this, is that most people assume products are safe. We’ve been calling people, and 74% of people already think that there’s an obligation for businesses to sell safe products. It’s so sensible, people just think it’s already done. So we constantly need to fight that battle to let people know that actually it’s not the case. And to let them know about what is probably in their home that’s risky.

Delia: Thanks, and I think that point about data is just so important. And as a regulator where you have to do risk assessments and RISs (regulation impact statements) – getting that data is extremely difficult and it’s essential to make your case if you’re going to show this.

One of the things the ACCC is campaigning for, and advocating very strongly for, is the establishment of a national injury database.

Delia Rickard

One of the things the ACCC is campaigning for, and advocating very strongly for, is the establishment of a national injury database so that we actually have nationwide data about what injuries are occurring, what products are associated with them. So we can much better target our efforts to make Australia a safe place.

Now can I get everyone to thank our fantastic panel. Thank you.

Go the other two parts of the transcript: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Congress product safety panel
Erin Turner and Gail Greatorex