Image taken from behind of a woman looking at a shelf of products

Safety must trump profit when it comes to consumer products

Safety must trump profit when it comes to consumer products

Dr Catherine Niven, Research Fellow, Australian Centre for Health Services

Professor Kirsten Vallmuur, Chair of Trauma Surveillance and Data Analytics, Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation & the Jamieson Trauma Institute

Are you one of the millions of Australians that think businesses are legally required to ensure their products are safe before supplying them to market? Almost 80 percent of Australians surveyed by CHOICE think this is the case, but the reality is that our consumer product safety framework is reactive, pulling products off the shelves by recalls or bans after a product is found to be unsafe. Often this is after an injury or death has occurred. Unlike other countries, our regulatory framework does not contain a law that prohibits the sale of unsafe consumer products, and there are only 46 mandatory safety standards for products compared to the thousands of consumer products on the market.

Consumer products are the products we use every day for our own personal use, such as our clothes, toys, and household equipment and furniture. These products blend into the background and their safety is often overlooked by users. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission estimate that at least two people die and 145 people are injured every day by unsafe consumer products in Australia.

Our interdisciplinary team at the Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation has been conducting research into product safety for over a decade. One of our goals is to improve recognition of product safety as an injury prevention and ultimately public health concern in Australia, ensuring it is encapsulated into injury prevention strategies and not only thought of in economic terms. For example, the primary objective of our product safety framework is to:

promote consumer confidence in the market through eliminating risks that cannot be mitigated by market forces alone, and, in doing so, to enhance demand.” ([24.17] Explanatory Memoranda)

Product safety is not just about the efficient operation of consumer markets. It is fundamentally about injury prevention – protecting the public against unreasonable risk of injury associated with consumer products. We need to shift away from siloed thinking to reduce product-related injury and death in Australia; we need the custodians of health data to work with our regulators to arm them with evidence to make informed regulatory decisions.

Our most recent collaborative academic study, funded by the Australian Research Council (DP170103136), focused on child product safety  – recognising that children are at heightened risk of product-related injury. As part of this project, we conducted an online survey of international product safety experts to elicit and summarise collective opinion on contemporary child product safety risks, challenges, and priorities. Fifty-five experts participated, representing 1,137 years of product safety experience, and the results have just been published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

Some key safety concerns from the experts are regarding button batteries, due to their ubiquity and the severe and fatal consequences if ingested, as well as lithium batteries due to poor compliance with electrical standards and high fire and burn risks. Also of substantial concern to experts were baby furnishing products used in the infant sleep environment due to suffocation, strangulation, entrapment and fall hazards, and household furniture and televisions due to tip-over hazards.

While regulatory action and resources are being diverted to such products to mitigate injuries and damage, the obvious question is: why are unsafe products being supplied in the first place? Shouldn’t safety trump profit?

Australian product safety reform proposals to improve the effectiveness of the system went out for public consultation in 2019. A central reform proposal was to introduce an obligation on suppliers to ensure the safety of their products before they are supplied to the Australian market. This is not cutting-edge reform, with similar obligations in place in the European Union since the 90s, and many other countries following suit in recent years. There is no word yet from the federal Treasury on whether this vital injury prevention reform has progressed.

Some of the challenge with reform is the inability to quantify nationwide injury costs, due to data deficiencies, to then balance against business costs to gain the coveted ‘net benefit’ to justify reform. While the gold standard for product injury surveillance systems is the US National Injury Electronic Surveillance System, it would take significant resources to develop and implement a similar system here. We have been working to improve injury surveillance from data collected in routine health information systems over the last decade and have made headway into using big data technology to classify injury narratives and identify products in International Classification of Diseases (ICD) external cause codes. Harnessing big data will help product safety surveillance identify emerging and systemic injury issues. And as highlighted by many experts in our recent survey, accessible injury surveillance data is a shared priority for all stakeholders to inform product design, standards development, regulatory responses, and public awareness campaigns.

While regulatory reform and improvements in product safety injury surveillance will take time, there is something we can all do now as the eyes and ears in the field. Our current system relies heavily on consumers and health professionals reporting product safety incidents to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Reporting will help prevent injuries and potential tragedies.

Read more in “Navigating Child Product Safety: Perspectives from Experts on International Challenges and Priorities in Regulation and Research” in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health here.

Image credit: Tom Parandyk /

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