Calls for mandatory baby mattress standards
CHOICE has conducted safety tests of Australia’s leading cot mattresses and reported that three popular brands fail
The vast majority of products in the Australian market have not been tested to any safety standard, causing countless preventable injuries, a leading paediatrician says.
Ruth Barker, a Brisbane-based emergency paediatrician, is leading calls for businesses to be forced to make and sell only safe products.
At present, consumer protection laws do not explicitly stop companies from selling unsafe products, unless they are subject to a mandatory standard, such as cots and nursery toys. Cot mattresses, for example, have only a voluntary “firmness test”.
Erin Phillips did a lot of research on the best cot for her son Max, but when it came to mattresses she found herself in the dark.
Most household products, including children’s goods such as high chairs, baby slings and hammocks, do not have to be declared safe before hitting retail shelves.
Many parents, like first-time Central Coast mum Erin Phillips, often fail to get good advice in retail stores. “I had done a lot of research on what sort of cot I wanted, and I did a little on the mattress but there just wasn’t much out there, even at the store,” she said.
Dr Barker, from the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit, said: “Australians walk into recognised retailers like Woolworths or Myer and think every product has gone through rigorous testing. They assume that. But it’s not true.”
Ruth Barker, an emergency paediatrician from Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, is calling for stronger product safety laws. Photo: Esther Han
Speaking at the National Consumer Congress this month, Dr Barker called for the inclusion of a “general safety provision”, which would require companies to sell only safe products, in the Australian Consumer Law, under review this year.
She pointed to a portable light with non-secure button batteries, a roll-on deodorant-style lolly with a ball that can shoot out and choke, and a toy treadmill clearly designed for kids but that comes with the warning: “Keep young children away … may result in severe friction burns”, as examples of dangerous products that should not be for sale.
She said too many preventable injuries were caused by poorly-designed products.
Button batteries are usually located in easily accessible compartments, posing a risk for children who may swallow them and die. Photo: Gerhard H Wrodnigg
“It’s time for a general safety provision. Product could be tested to things like the ISO 50 (from the International Organisation for Standardisation), which is around child safety. This is proactive, rather than reactive,” she said.
In its review of the product safety system in 2005, the Productivity Commission dismissed the need for a general safety provision, saying additional costs to businesses and government outweighed the benefits.
Woolworths was hit with a $3 million penalty in February for knowingly selling unsafe, faulty goods, with Justice Edelman ordering the supermarket to upgrade its product safety compliance program.
Product safety consultant Gail Greatorex, with 25 years of experience, said she was on the fence about the need for a general safety provision. She said the Woolworths case saw the court providing a “de facto” provision.
“While there is no express provision proscribing supply of unsafe products, the legal consequences indicate suppliers would do well to consider that a GSP exists and ensure they supply only safe goods,” she said.
“In terms of button batteries, if there was a GSP, suppliers, retailers and manufacturers would be expected to make the battery compartment hard to access for a child, like having to use a screw driver to remove the cover.”
Currently, suppliers of products such as fake candles are not obliged to make it difficult for a child to access button batteries, which can kill a child if swallowed. The only deterrent is the risk of being sued and the risk of conducting a recall.
Opening the Consumer Congress, Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Watchdog, said product safety was on the agenda as the five-year-old ACL went under review.
“In the area of international safety standards, the review provides an opportunity to reduce duplicative domestic regulations while accommodating the flexibility required to protect consumers,” he said.
“There may also be scope for the review to look at … whether further principles based legislation might be warranted to tackle any unaddressed harms. We may also want to consider the merits of a need for a general obligation to supply safe products.”