The Future Came Too Soon

HoverboardDoc Brown and Marty McFly had to travel all the way to the future to find a hoverboard. Now we’re living in that future, only the future may have come too soon. Thousands of hoverboards are being sold without proper hazard analysis and now consumers are being put in grave danger.

On December 16, 2015, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a statement directing its agency staff to “work non-stop to find the root cause…” of fire hazards associated with hoverboards.

However, fire is not the only hazard relative to hoverboards. In the statement released by the CPSC, it also recognized that it has received dozens of reports of injuries from emergency rooms of hospitals relating to hoverboards.

Unbeknownst to consumers, risk of serious injury is associated with hoverboards. By comparison, approximately 120,500 people are treated annually in emergency rooms for skateboard injuries. Half of the injured are between the ages of 15-24. More than 34 percent are 14 and younger. Head injuries, fractures, internal organ injuries are some of the serious injuries.

Consumers are not aware of the ‘gravity of risk’ associated with hoverboard use. Consumers might believe that these incidents “only happen to someone else” or “I will be careful” in using a product. However, such wishful thinking is unacceptable regarding product design.

The most effective means to avoid incidents is by eliminating or reducing hazards during the design and development of a product before reaching consumers, but, as the saying goes, “it is too late to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

Designers and manufactures of hoverboards should have undertaken hazard analyses to identify unsafe physical conditions and risk analyses to determine the probability of serious injury and/or death. Within risk analyses, there should be further analyses to understand how consumers will use the product.

As the CPSC continues their investigation, they should demand designers and manufacturers provide their hazard and risk analyses regarding hoverboards. This would greatly assist the CPSC in its investigation. Otherwise, tax payers will end up footing the bill to determine root causes of why hoverboards are causing damage to consumers and property.

The future came too soon and now consumers are in harms way. It’s too late to go back, so now it’s time to find the way to a safer future.

All Plugged In: Extension Cord Awareness

Extension Cord AwarenessWith winter and the holiday season upon us, you’re outlets are probably all filled. You may have even moved to using extension cords to power Christmas trees, lights, inflatable decor, and other extras that come with the holidays and cold weather.

Were you aware the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates about 3,300 residential fires originate in extension cords every year killing approximately 50 persons and injuring 270 others? Further, there are approximately 4,000 injuries per years relative to electrical extension cords treated in hospital emergency rooms. Therefore, the risk (probability of an untoward result occurring) is significant.

Consumer awareness regarding extension cords is a topic for concern. Most consumers are not aware of the hazards (unsafe physical conditions) relative to extension cords. Information regarding extension cords is not easy to understand and disbursed in various resources.

Consumers should only purchase extension cords that have the “UL” marking. This marking indicates that the extension cord manufacturer has complied with UL Standard 817. Unfortunately numerous extension cords are marketed without meeting the voluntary standard. It was not until August 26, 2015 that the CPSC issued a final rule maintaining extension cords would be deemed a substantial product hazard under the act unless the cords contained certain observable characteristics.

On top of ensuring the cord you purchased is UL compliant:

  1. Only use indoor extension cords for indoor needs. Select a low gage extension cord made designated for specifically for outdoor use if you are using it in outdoor conditions.
    One of the confusing aspects in the selection of an outdoor extension cord is the gage wire rating (wire diameter). It is opposite to what one would think. The smaller the number (i.e. 10, 12,) the thicker the wire. The thicker wire provides less resistance, therefore minimizing overheating.
    Extension Cord Gage Chart
  2. Do not use extension cords for heat producing appliances such as coffee pots, toasters, and space heaters. The electrical load from these devices often approaches the circuit capacity and adding cord length increases the chance of overheating.
  3. Do not concentrate or trap the heat of an extension cord. Coiling an extension cord can concentrate heat. The same is true for placing extension cords under a rug or carpeting. The trapped heat can damage the cord and lead to a fire.
  4. Only use the necessary length of extension cord for the application. For example, if your Christmas tree lights need a 6-foot cord, do not use a 12-foot cord.

A consumer product that is used every day by millions of Americans has diffuse and confusing information for which it is difficult for consumers to understand. This is another example of why safety engineering must be incorporated into products during the design and manufacture so hazards can be identified and eliminated to the extent reasonably possible. Otherwise, consumers are left on their own to search for piecemeal information about a product.

For more information about household extension cords causing fires, follow this link to a safety alert from the CPSC.

Pay Attention, If You Can

man on phone drivingHow many tasks are you performing right now? You probably have your phone in your hand checking email or waiting on a text. Maybe your television is on in the background waiting for the news report to begin. Then of course, you’re trying to read this blog. All the while your brain is trying, but failing, to multitask.

Stop. Put down the phone. Turn off the television. Close those other windows on your desktop. Give us five minutes of your undivided attention. You’ll see in a minute why it’s so important.

Understanding attention limits of humans is an important factor in the design of products and systems. Persons do not perform well when trying to perform two attention demanding tasks at the same time.

For example, during two cognitively complex tasks, such as driving and talking on the phone, the brain shifts its focus and people develop “inattention blindness.” Inattention blindness is a tendency to look at but not see objects. It is estimated that drivers using cell phones, including through hands free means, look but fail to see up to 50 percent of information in their driving environment.

According to the National Safety Council, the brain engages in a constant process to deal with information it receives by selecting the information the brain will attend to, processing the information, encoding the information (a stage that creates memory,) storing the information, retrieving the stored information, and then executing upon the information. When the brain is overloaded all of these steps are affected. However, people do not realize this challenge is occurring within their brains.

When persons maintain they can multitask, they do not understand how the brain processes information for decision-making. Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially switching between one task and another. When brains juggle tasks rapidly, it leads to the erroneous conclusion that people are able to do two tasks at the same time. In reality, the brain is switching attention between the tasks performing only one task at a time.

Designers of products and systems need to understand limitations of humans attention and design systems to eliminate or minimize human error due to humans limitations regarding attention; after all, to err is human, design forgives.

For more information on human attention capabilities we recommend downloading “Understanding the Distracted Brain,” from the National Safety Council.

Carbon Monoxide Dangers in Your Home

FurnaceBrr! It’s getting cold outside. It’s the time of year to turn on your furnace or heaters to stay warm.

Did you know many heating devices can produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas, that can quickly incapacitate and kill you? More than 400 persons die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Sources of carbon monoxide in addition to malfunctioning furnaces and room heaters include cars, malfunctioning fuel burning appliances such as ranges and water heaters, and engine powered equipment such as portable generators. Burning charcoal in fireplaces inside the home or semi-enclosed areas can also result in lethal levels of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Modern furnaces performance to vent carbon monoxide does not always provide consumer protection from carbon monoxide leakage under a number of conditions that commonly occur. These conditions include disconnected vents, partially blocked vents, over-fired furnaces, and furnaces that have inadequate air for combustion. These common scenarios underscore the need to provide consumers with more comprehensive protection against carbon monoxide poisoning.

Following the safety hierarchy, it is always best to eliminate a hazard of carbon monoxide through design, to the extent reasonably possible. Any remaining hazards need to be guarded against, to the extent reasonably possible. However, as consumers, the most immediate action we can take is to provide in our homes and perhaps work places carbon monoxide detectors/alarms.

Look around in your home. Do you have carbon monoxide detector(s)/alarm(s)? If so, have you replaced the batteries and ensured they are in functioning order?

For more information on carbon monoxide poisoning, please visit the CPSC website.