United States: Five Key Takeaways From ICPHSO Annual Product Safety Symposium, Washington 2019

Last Updated: May 21 2019
Article by Carol Roberts

The ICPHSO annual Product Safety symposium took place in Washington DC last week, with a record number of attendees. The Cooley team was there in full force and is pleased to bring you a round-up of some of the highlights.

Regulator insights

ICPHSO is well known for bringing all stakeholders together in the shared goal of helping ensure consumers can be confident in the safety of the products available to them. A regular and unique feature at ICPHSO conferences is the global regulators panel, and, especially in Washington DC, insights from representatives of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

There are a number of important points that came out of these discussions this year:

  • Regulators around the world are more joined up than ever before and the Australian regulator flagged that they discuss how to identify issues that affect consumers across the world; they don't just think specifically about issues that are particular to their local markets. The CPSC commented that the possibility of joint recall actions beyond North America are likely to be on the horizon.
  • Regulators are increasingly keen to innovate themselves to facilitate better engagement, compliance and enforcement – for example the CPSC gave a run through of their updated "Regulatory Robot" and the OPSS (UK regulator) referenced the new Code of Practice for Recalls (PAS 7100) that was published last year and is the first of its kind.
  • Regulators, at least in some countries, encourage dialogue – speaking to a regulator does not have to, and often does not, mean that you'll be required to recall a product. The CPSC in particular urged "if in doubt – report", commenting that 85% of reports do not lead to a recall.
  • Regulators are increasingly focussed on e-commerce; although one speaker from the CPSC indicated that there is some acceptance that responsibility can also lie with the consumer with e.g. counterfeits sold online.

It was clear that regulators participating in this event recognised that they do not regulate in a vacuum. In particular, regulators do look to industry for information when it comes to innovative products: and this is an opportunity for industry to step up.

New technologies

A key theme across the week was the management of safety in the context of new technologies. Cooley's Sarah-Jane Dobson spoke at an Associated Meeting to discuss developing a safety process standard or guidance that would provide innovators with a process for determining the appropriate safety criteria for their innovative product or innovative feature(s) of more traditional products. Another session highlighted the advancements in virtual reality that can be used to simulate how a product safety issue could have occurred, for example it can be used to recreate and then safely replay and manipulate the scenario that has occurred in an effort to identify the series of events that led to a failure or safety incident.

Professionals across the board are alive to the potential benefits of new technology. Whether that's through the multitude of benefits to consumers of more innovative technology to technology being used to improve recall uptake or analyse data on product safety incidents. However, the risks of these technologies were also not forgotten, with much discussion on the risks of bias in AI and the interrelation with data privacy and security issues that evermore connected products bring.

International alignment

The conference was, as always, a hub for discussion on an international level. A recurring question was why harmonisation of product safety standards and requirements has been so hard to achieve globally. Cooley's Claire Temple led a session on exactly this topic, discussing the reasons why international harmonisation of standards has been, at times, so elusive historically. Although there appears to be a consensus that harmonisation would bring benefits to consumers, industries, regulators, developing economies and emerging technologies, the difficulties (including those of a political nature) can be difficult to surmount. Ultimately, the panel suggested we can be guardedly optimistic about achieving alignment, rather than harmonisation – particularly in the context of new technologies, as standards are developed. The message was ultimately that although complete alignment may not be possible, that is no reason not to strive to achieve it even in part.

One way to do this could be to look to other industries, and how they've handled product safety incidents. Rod Freeman spoke on a panel that identified examples of where consumer safety has been enhanced when industries look to lessons that can be learned from experiences in other industries. This is a discussion that we expect will be continued in future ICPHSO meetings.

Internal compliance processes

Discussions also looked "inwards" – what do companies need to be thinking about internally to ensure consumer product safety.

One discussion was around the role of the compliance officer (hero or villain?). Speakers highlighted how the strains of this role, for example meeting the pressure to get to market or the perception of being a 'blocker', can soon be turned into positives if compliance officers seek to be true partners to their business teams – helping them to look around corners. The most important message? Be realistic about what can be achieved and what must be done. The importance of communication, planning, learning and training cannot be emphasised enough.

A safety programme is also a core process. This is more than just product safety but must also take into account impact of recalls, government penalties, increased operational costs, liability, reputational risks, lost sales, and the importance of social responsibility. Companies must consider the full cycle of pre- and post-sale responsibilities. And although there's no one size fits all approach – a company organisation as well as management buy-in is key to a successful safety procedure.

Diversity and inclusion

There's also an emerging discussion around diversity and inclusion. Cooley's Carol Roberts, in her capacity as leader of the ICPHSO diversity and inclusion initiative, together with ICPHSO's President Belinda May, spoke about the importance of this continued focus in ensuring consumer product safety in an innovative world, revisiting examples of successes and failures in product safety from a diversity and inclusion perspective that were discussed during ICPHSO's 2018 International Symposium in Brussels.

CPSC Commissioner Robert Adler gave a keynote on product safety issues that disproportionately affect the elderly. As a group seeing a huge demographic growth, this is expected to be a CPSC focus going forward. A plenary session then looked at the elderly population, including use of customer review data, examples of changes to products that take into account the needs of the elderly and key concerns to that particular demographic group.

We expect that this conversation around diversity and inclusion will continue and that it will lead to thought-leadership and innovative solutions within the products world.

ICPHSO International Symposium 2019 – Dublin

During the event, Rod Freeman, as ICPHSO's newly appointed Chair of International Programs, announced that arrangements are being finalised for ICPHSO's International Symposium to be held this year at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Make sure you save the likely dates (24th and 25th October) and start to plan to be in Ireland for what will be a couple of days of great discussions and networking for the international product safety community. The venue and dates should be confirmed shortly.

If you'd like any more information about the ICPHSO activities – please do get in touch with one of the Cooley team and we'd be happy to help.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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