Window-Blind Makers Split Over Proposals to Ban Cords

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By Martina Barash

Window-blind makers are split over competing proposals for a first-of-its-kind voluntary safety standard aimed at reducing persistent strangulation risks by banning cords on many products.

One of the main goals, shared by members of the industry, consumer groups, retailers and the government, is to prevent most strangulation incidents from happening. Cords on window blinds and similar products have killed one child nearly every month on average over a long reporting period, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

But product makers have additional concerns as well, and the different proposals being debated—one of which could soon be advanced—have led to significant friction.

Tension points include how much of the blind market really needs to go cordless and how easy to administer, and how effective, the bans would be.

Some product makers, including leading manufacturers Hunter Douglas Inc. and Springs Window Fashions LLC, favor a plan in which only pre-made, “stock” window coverings would be produced without cords. The proposal would allow cords on custom-made products.

Its advocates say about three-quarters of the current blind market would go cordless under this proposal, the standard could be rolled out quickly and seniors and others who need corded products would still have a good selection of options.

Other makers, including Nien Made USA Inc., along with top retailers such as Home Depot, consumer groups and Consumer Product Safety Commission staff members, favor a standard that divides blinds and similar products primarily by size. Cords would be allowed only on custom-made window coverings that are very large or unusually narrow.

That would, in effect, mean a ban on cords for close to 90 percent of all blinds available and, this standard’s supporters say, create an easier-to-enforce rule.

The first proposal’s stock-custom distinction is a “weird split” that falls short in protecting children, Kent Knutson, vice president for government relations at The Home Depot Inc. in Washington told Bloomberg BNA. “We thought this was a crazy way to divide this universe up.”

Meanwhile, some participants are chafing at the current voluntary standards process, through the American National Standards Institute.

That process isn’t the only possible route to addressing the hazard for the North American market—and the threat of alternate avenues puts pressure on product makers to agree to an acceptable solution.

A switch to another standard-setting organization is possible, though not considered likely. The CPSC hasn’t relinquished the idea of a mandatory standard. And Canada’s health and product safety agency, Health Canada, is working on a mandatory standard of its own that may be stricter than any of the alternative voluntary standards yet proposed.

“It’s important that the parties continue to stay at the table to work on this issue,” Kathleen McGuigan of the Retail Industry Leaders Association in Arlington, Va., told Bloomberg BNA in a recent interview. “Right now, there’s no voluntary standard that addresses the potential safety hazard of operating cords.”

McGuigan, whose group represents the largest retailers operating in the U.S., including general merchandise sellers such as Costco and home-improvement retailers The Home Depot and Lowe’s Cos., said a pledge by several retailers to go cordless for in-store sales by the end of 2018 has been “the only advancement” so far on the issue.

Linda Kaiser, a safety advocate who heads Parents for Window Blind Safety, told Bloomberg BNA that she thinks the outcome will be a “stock versus custom” standard because the biggest makers are currently on board with that proposal and “the manufacturers usually get what they want.”

But “with all this pressure going on around them, it’s hard to say,” she added.

Others involved with the process, who spoke on background, said there’s substantial support among product makers for each of the competing proposals.

Effectiveness

The New York-based Window Covering Manufacturers Association is the main advocate for the stock-custom distinction.

The group, whose members include some of the largest stock and custom makers, pursued other initiatives at first, such as a “Best for Kids” certification for products that meet certain criteria. But some CPSC commissioners and consumer groups criticized the program as inadequate.

Then the WCMA announced in June 2016 that it would develop a voluntary standard. That proposal now consists of banning cords only on “stock” blind products.

Ralph Vasami, the group’s executive director, sought consensus on the question, “How can we segment the market to make the largest impact we can as quick as we can?” according to Paul Nathanson, a government-affairs specialist at Bracewell LLC in Washington, who spoke to Bloomberg BNA along with Vasami.

“This would result in, we estimate, at least 75 percent of the market being cordless within a very short period of time,” Nathanson said.

And “it’s not as if every custom product has cords,” Vasami said. “Probably 30 percent to a third of the custom market is sold in some sort of cordless fashion today. And that’s where more new product innovation is continuing to go.”

Counting stock and cordless custom products together, “you get a pretty significant impact on the market,” he said.

But consumer advocates and human-factors psychologist Carol Pollack-Nelson, Ph.D., a safety expert on the voluntary standards panel, have criticized the stock-custom standard as being less effective than a size-based standard.

Pollack-Nelson is an independent consultant who’s worked with consumer and business groups and is participating in the window-covering standard-development process pro bono, according to herself and others. She used to work for the CPSC.

Stock and custom window coverings can be essentially the same products, Pollack-Nelson told Bloomberg BNA. “When it comes to custom, it’s just that you’re going into a different retail establishment and you’re going to specify your size and your color,” she said. Consumers can also choose size and color through online sales.

She and Kaiser said they’re aware of numerous strangulations involving custom-made products.

Kaiser pointed to the possibility that the percentages of stock and custom sales may shift. “If custom products that are corded are lower-priced than cordless products,” consumers—including landlords buying window coverings for rental properties—"are going to choose the cheaper product online,” she said. “So it doesn’t matter what the percentage is now.”

Pollack-Nelson developed the size-based standard now under consideration. Participants refer to it as a “hybrid” standard because it divides the universe of products by size first, and secondarily by how they’re made. Under this proposal, “smaller than 72 x 72 inches would be cordless, and above that they could segment by stock and custom based on what is necessary,” Pollack-Nelson said.

“Based on what CPSC has said, 90 percent of incidents would be captured” with that model, she said.

A third proposal is also under consideration. It has “a lot of common ground” with the hybrid proposal, Knutson said.

Implementation

Retailers have their own concerns about the WCMA proposal. “How does any regulator, any safety person know if the blind was bought off the shelf or in a custom setting?” Knutson asked. That standard would be “too confusing for our customers, too confusing for our employees at Home Depot, confusing for regulators, confusing for everybody,” he said.

“Right now, the WCMA standard is not easy or clear,” Knutson said. “It’s about certain people protecting their business interests instead of protecting the kids.”

McGuigan, of the retailers’ trade association, also emphasized implementation challenges. “We think that our concerns are largely addressed by the hybrid proposal,” which would be easier to implement, she said.

But the retailer group hasn’t taken a position on any of the proposals and doesn’t intend to endorse one, she said.

Ed Krenik of Bracewell, who also spoke for the WCMA, said, “We just disagree that this is somehow difficult to implement.”

“The manufacturer is required to follow the steps of the standard,” he said. “If I’m a manufacturer and I’m manufacturing stock products, I know what I’m manufacturing” and would need to make stock products cordless, he said.

But “you’re 100 percent reliant on what the manufacturer tells you” about whether a product is stock or custom, Pollack-Nelson countered.

“I believe that the manufacturers who are involved in our process would be honest,” but not all manufacturers would necessarily understand the hazard and identify custom products as such, she said. Testing laboratories wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between stock and custom products, she said.

Feasibility, Disability

The WCMA, meanwhile, expressed concerns of its own about the feasibility of the alternate proposals and the part of the population that needs corded products.

The group’s members must decide whether to “recommend staying in the direction that we’re currently in, or exploring these other options, which would require, then, significant technical investigation and fact-finding and feasibility, the potential for having to develop different types of testing procedures and requirements,” Vasami said.

But Knutson, of Home Depot, said, “The technology exists; let’s just make it happen.”

Pollack-Nelson said, “What CPSC has presented to the subcommittee is that products being sold currently that are smaller than 72 x72 inches in every product category,” for example, horizontal blinds, “are being sold already as cordless. We know it’s technologically feasible.”

The WCMA’s other concern relates to “a category of the population that can’t use a cordless product,” Krenik said. The elderly and people with disabilities often need cords, he said.

Knutson said he was sensitive to that and didn’t want to gloss over it. But it’s a small piece of the market and there are ways to address it, he said.

Process

The fact that it is the product makers that will be voting on the standard vexes some participants. “We’re still trying to figure out how only the manufacturers get a voice in what goes to ANSI,” Knutson, of Home Depot, said.

A flurry of recent letters among McGuigan, CPSC Chairman Elliot Kaye and Vasami, meanwhile, have roiled the waters. Kaye, a Democrat, appeared to lend his support to the hybrid proposal, and at least encouraged participants “to rally around whatever proposal would most effectively address the hazard.”

And if the current process doesn’t seem headed for the strongest standard, Kaye said, participants could “relocate to a different voluntary standards forum that provides the proper fair, open and transparent process.”

Though he didn’t mention the prospect of a mandatory rule, that remains on the table, according to CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson.

“The statute is clear for the agency that if there is a voluntary standard that meets the goals that staff has proposed in pursuing a mandatory rulemaking, that is when we will step back and not proceed with rulemaking. But at this point the agency is on two tracks,” he said.

But CPSC Commissioner Ann Marie Buerkle, a Republican, said it was inappropriate for commissioners to get involved in the voluntary-standard process. Only CPSC staff participation is appropriate and mandated by Congress, she said.

Buerkle said she’s optimistic that the participants will arrive at a solution. A consensus standard is valuable, she said. It is “dynamic” and can be updated or strengthened, she said.

McGuigan said the retailer association supports the voluntary process. “We believe that the parties have expended a great deal of time and effort, there has been a great deal of work done, some very hard discussions,” she said. “We have confidence that all parties are acting in good faith and that they are looking to try to develop a safety standard that addresses the hazard and that would be effective.”

Kaiser, the safety advocate, favors a mandatory approach, however. “Honestly, no proposal is perfect” because there are so many different products on the market, she said.

Participants were unsure what effect a proposed Health Canada rule would have on the U.S. market.

“I love what they’re doing right now,” Kaiser said of the Canadian proposal. That regulation, in its current form, would “prohibit window covering products that pose a strangulation risk to children from being manufactured, imported, advertised or sold in Canada,” according to an October 2016 statement by Jane Philpott, the Canadian minister of health.

“I think that they’ve had enough and they’re not going to be ruled by anyone. I think the industry is going to be forced to come up with something that’s going to meet the rule that Health Canada is proposing,” Kaiser said.

And if Health Canada issues a stronger rule than ANSI adopts, she’ll use it, she says. She’ll always encourage the WCMA “to have the best and safest standard in the world. And they’re not going to have the safest standard in the world because Canada will be ahead of them,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina Barash in Washington at MBarash@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

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