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GAO Urges Improvements in Oversight of Consumer Product Safety

Wednesday, December 03, 2014
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

The Government Accountability Office released recently a report identifying opportunities to strengthen coordination and increase efficiencies and effectiveness in federal oversight of consumer product safety. Oversight is currently fragmented and overlapping, the report states, resulting in challenges such as communication difficulties, inefficient use of resources and unclear roles.

GAO identified eight federal agencies that have direct oversight responsibilities for consumer product safety: the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Coast Guard. All eight conduct regulatory activities to promote consumer product safety such as rulemaking, standard setting, risk assessment, enforcement and product recalls. In addition, at least 12 other agencies play a support role in consumer product safety in various areas, such as public health and law enforcement.

According to the report, oversight of consumer product safety is fragmented across these agencies and jurisdiction overlaps or is unclear for certain products. In some cases, agencies regulate different components of or carry out different regulatory activities for the same product, or jurisdiction for a product can change depending on where or how it is used. For example, NHTSA regulates handheld infant carriers when used as car seats but the CPSC regulates them when used outside of motor vehicles. While the involvement of multiple agencies with various expertise can help ensure more comprehensive oversight by addressing a range of safety concerns, there are also some inefficiencies, including with respect to sharing information and jurisdiction. For example, the Coast Guard works informally with the CPSC on some recreational boating products when the need arises, but these interactions are infrequent. In addition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology oversees the markings of toy and imitation firearms to distinguish them from real firearms but believes this function may be better administered by the CPSC, which oversees the safety and performance of toys.

Another problem identified by the report is the lack of a formal mechanism for comprehensively addressing specific consumer product safety topics. Independent agencies such as the CPSC are not subject to the Office of Management and Budget’s planning and review process for executive agencies, the GAO states, and no single entity or mechanism exists to help agencies to collectively address crosscutting issues.

The report concludes with the following recommendations.

- Congress should consider transferring oversight of the markings of toy, look-alike and imitation firearms from NIST to the CPSC.

- Congress should consider establishing a formal comprehensive oversight mechanism for consumer product safety agencies to address crosscutting issues as well as inefficiencies related to fragmentation and overlap. Different types of formal mechanisms could include creating a memorandum of understanding to formalize relationships and agreements or establishing a task force or interagency work group.

- To clarify roles, facilitate greater communication and strengthen oversight of associated equipment related to recreational boats, the Coast Guard and the CPSC should establish a formal approach to coordination such as a memorandum of understanding.

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