Compliance is Not Enough for Safe Promotional Products

If attendance at ICPHSO’s 2012 Annual Meeting and Training Symposium is any indication, then the promotional products industry should feel proud of the strides it is making in product safety awareness.  From scant industry attendance just four years ago, this year’s symposium, held earlier this month in Orlando, had strong participation by PPAI, by QCA, and by at least a dozen major promotional products suppliers and distributors.  But while progress is encouraging, the workshops at ICPHSO made clear that product safety is much more than test reports and CPSIA compliance.

ICPHSO is an acronym for the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization.  It is the preeminent International product safety organization and is comprised of accomplished compliance professionals from all over the world – manufacturers, retailers, government regulators, attorneys, testing labs, standards developers, academia and consumer advocates.  Chances are, if you’re selling promotional products to a major corporation, its product safety team participates in ICPHSO.  More than 600 attendees made the pilgrimage to Orlando this year to share their knowledge, to learn from their peers, to network with like-minded colleagues and to mingle with government regulators from countries around the globe.

This year’s major topic was manufacturing and the challenges of producing safe and compliant products consistently in factories all over the world.  Traceability and supply chain transparency was a common theme in several presentations.  It was comforting to hear that even the largest companies struggle with this issue just as many importers do in our industry.  Jennifer Weaver, Director of Quality Assurance at Under Armour, noted that while she closely supervises Under Armour’s factories, her company does not even attempt to trace production from suppliers of items such as buttons, zippers and seams.  The consensus seemed to be that each manufacturer/importer must develop a plan based on a risk assessment of its own particular products.

While most product safety initiatives in the promotional industry are focused on compliance – CPSIA, FDA, Prop 65 and similar regulations – ICPHSO has always taken a deeper approach to consumer product safety.  Several experts spoke of the importance of avoiding product related injuries by building in safety from the beginning – by designing out safety defects at the product development stage and by considering the foreseeable abuse and misuse of a product as well as its intended use.   Another important topic focused on the importance of recall preparedness – having a well-practiced plan in place for the inevitable situations where unsafe products are discovered after a product goes to market.  Time is always of the essence in such cases, including the obligation to report to CPSC.  One of the most impressive presentations of the week was by Jennifer Thompson of Costco who explained the sophistication, speed and effectiveness with which Costco implements recalls and notifies customers who have purchased recalled products.

So while we should be proud as an industry of the product safety strides we are making – through PPAI’s Product Responsibility Action Group (PRAG), through QCA, and through individual company initiatives – the ICPHSO presentations illustrate how product safety has to become part of the culture of all industry participants if we’re truly to protect our industry.  For example, how many promotional products are imported without a formal risk assessment or without evaluation for product safety hazards?  In some cases these tests can seem unaffordable but the risk of not testing can be even more expensive.  A few years ago our product development team was considering a spa kit for our line – one that contained a variety of aloe-type skin creams and lotions.  The kit would have sold for less than $10.  In performing our risk assessment we asked a well-known cosmetics lab to verify that the lotions were of the quality that the Asian factory contended and that they did not contain any harmful ingredients or toxins.  The lab quoted $28,000 for the tests.  This may be a normal cost for a major cosmetics company but for most of our industry it isn’t a reasonable value proposition, particularly when the supplier has no idea if the product will even sell.  Accordingly, we did not add the spa kit to our line.  Now this week, in an unrelated case, the FDA has issued a dire warning about dangerous levels of poisonous mercury found in a variety of imported skin creams and antiseptic soaps or lotions found in at least seven states.  Just imagine how this could have impacted our industry if these poisonous lotions had been purchased through a promotional products distributor and given away in a spa kit by a major corporation.

So given the practical and realistic resources of most companies in the promotional products industry what can importers do to ensure that the products we are selling are not only compliant but also truly safe?  Here is a good starting list:

1)     Appoint someone in your company as product safety lead.  Send that person to product safety training such as a class offered by a major testing lab or the Certificate in Product Safety Management program offered by Saint Louis University.   Your designee should develop and implement a risk assessment process, maintain your product safety documentation and act as the point person if your company is ever involved in a recall.  Once these basic processes are in place, take the initiative to the next level.  Develop a comprehensive quality manual for all of your supply chain standard operating procedures and also develop a recall preparedness plan.

2)     As a supplier, manufacturer or importer, perform a basic risk assessment before adding any product to your line or before ordering it for your customer.  Even without independent testing, much can be done to minimize risk and promote safety.  Evaluate how well the product is constructed, the quality of materials, whether it will shatter when dropped, if it has sharp edges, choke or bite hazards as well as other foreseeable risks. Obtain a bill of materials for the product and identify any potentially hazardous materials or components.  Subject the product to reasonable use and abuse testing even if you have to test it yourself and be sure to consider the foreseeable misuse of the product, particularly by children.

3)     Test the product to simulate how well it performs.  If it is a bag, for example, how much weight will it bear reliably before the fabric, seams or straps give way.   Are there embellishments like buttons, grommets, labels, labels or hooks?  If so, how securely are they fastened?  If they break off will any sharp edges remain?  Is there any chrome or electroplating?  Is the quality high enough that it won’t peel or curl leaving knife like edges?

4)     Investigate whether the product, its components or its packaging is subject to any state or Federal regulation.   In addition to CPSC regulation, many promotional products are also regulated by the FDA, including hand sanitizer, first aid kits, sunglasses and food contact materials such as drinkware.  If the product is regulated be sure you have current (within a year) third party tests showing that the product complies with all of the regulatory requirements of current law.

5)     Consider identifying products in your line that contain toxins.  BPA, lead, phthalates and cadmium have all come under scrutiny by Congress, by CPSC, and by FDA but are still allowed by law for most products.  Some of your customers or your customer’s customer may have policies against purchasing products containing these substances.  An alternate idea is to identify the products in your line that are lead free, phthalate free, cadmium free and BPA free and note this in your catalog, advertisements and on your web site.

6)     Determine if any special labeling is required to warn against any hazards, to note any stress limits and to identify the appropriate age for the product.

This is certainly not a comprehensive list but it’s a good start and would go a long way to raising the bar for product safety in the promotional products industry. In the months ahead, PRAG will be working towards proposing a similar suite of “best practices” for product safety that all industry participants can rally around.  The more that all of us do to promote product safety – compliant products and safe products – the more we do to protect our clients and our livelihood.

(To learn more about ICPHSO and its programs, visit www.ICPHSO.org)

4 thoughts on “Compliance is Not Enough for Safe Promotional Products

  1. Very well written article. Gives much “food for thought”. You are doing an important service in researching and passing this information along.

  2. Rick, great article and timely for a program I am working on. Client wants product safety issues handled for all products we are offering. Your information is excellent as a starting point. Are we headed for retail product safety issues? It sure looks like we must be prepared for this.

  3. We believe it’s better to have the ‘alcohol chat’ in the living room than in A&E.

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