Consumer agency votes to move ahead on window blind safety rule

Cormac Thomas died at 28 months when he strangled in a window blind cord at his home in Maryland on March 1, 2014. (Courtesy of Erica Thomas/McClatchy)
Cormac Thomas died at 28 months when he strangled in a window blind cord at his home in Maryland on March 1, 2014. (Courtesy of Erica Thomas/McClatchy) McClatchy

Federal regulators on Wednesday voted to begin the process of creating a national safety standard that would require window blind cords to be made inaccessible to children.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s five-member board voted unanimously to initiate the federal rule-making process after research by the agency’s staff determined that the industry’s voluntary efforts had failed to reduce the risk of strangulation on cords.

Children have strangled on window blind cords at a rate of about once a month in the United States for the past 30 years, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission data.

Commission chairman Elliot Kaye said in an interview that the vote represents a rejection of the status quo.

The urgent need to address the hazard is underscored by the “hideous persistence” of tragedies over the past three decades, Kaye said.

“Every year like sad clockwork there’s about a child a month who winds up hanging on these window blind cords, and that doesn’t even include the near-misses, the non-fatal instances, that can be almost as devastating to a family in terms of the long-term impact of the serious injuries that occur,” he said.

Wednesday’s vote comes in response to a petition filed in May 2013 by consumer groups and child safety advocates. The petition urged the safety commission to ban window blind cords when feasible and to require inaccessible cords in products that don’t allow for a cordless option.

Consumer groups praised Wednesday’s vote but noted a long road still lies ahead: The vote marks the start of an arduous process of federal rule-making, which requires extensive research, economic-impact analyses, drafts and public comment periods. It often takes years for any mandatory standard to take effect.

“This is a big step forward in this process to ensure window coverings are safer and tragedies are prevented,” said Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy and the Washington office of Consumers Union, one of the groups that filed the petition.

The window covering industry complained that eliminating accessible cords or making cords inaccessible “would only result in removing safe products from the market and cost thousands of jobs throughout the United States,” Ralph Vasami, executive director of the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, said in a statement.

“By raising costs, a rule that banned corded window covering products would likely cause consumers to hold onto older products longer,” Vasami said in the statement. “This would create a less safe environment because the CPSC’s own data show that more than 80 percent of incidents occur with older products that don’t meet current standards or where the consumer did not install or use the product properly.”

Vasami said the industry remains confident that commissioners will eventually “come to the conclusion that the voluntary safety standard is working and a mandatory standard is not warranted.”

Kaye, for one, isn’t buying the industry’s argument that a standard that requires cords to be inaccessible to children isn’t technically feasible or that the cost to industry is so high that it’s impossible.

“I reject the notion that American companies that make these products don’t have the ingenuity to solve this problem,” he said.

Kaye said he doesn’t care whether a new standard is imposed by the government or adopted voluntarily by industry as long as it addresses the hazard “as quickly as possible.”

Window blind safety became a priority for Kaye as chairman shortly after his nomination this year when he read an article about Cormac “Mac” Thomas, a 2-year-old Maryland boy who died in March, entangled in a cord on a supposedly “child-safe” roman shade in his home in Maryland.

The shade had a short pull cord with a safety release, but Mac strangled on a hidden cord that ran along the fabric on the back of the shade.

“It definitely resonated with me. It really did as a parent,” said Kaye, who has two children, ages 9 and 4.

“The mom in particular had done everything that we at the CPSC would ask of a parent in terms of trying to childproof and make safe a child’s room,” he said.

Mac’s mother, Erica Thomas, said she feels a guarded sense of relief after Wednesday’s vote.

“After many, many months of languishing within the CPSC, the fact that the petition was picked up for a vote and that the vote was unanimously in favor of moving forward . . . I am encouraged,” she said in an email.