Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Postdoctoral Fellowship in Driving Research at Harvard Medical School

Schepens Eye Research Institute, Harvard Medical School, has an IMMEDIATE opening for a postdoctoral fellow to work with Dr Gang Luo in the Mobility and Vision Rehabilitation Center. The available position is to assist in a NIH funded project of driving behaviors of visually impaired people. Natural driving activities of participants in the real world will be collected over a long period of time using a novel in-car recording system developed in Dr. Luo's lab, and the vast amount of data will be analyzed using computerized programs. The research projects also include studies in the state-of-art driving simulator. Results will help understand the safety of driving by visually impaired, which is currently permitted in more than 40 US states.

The ideal candidate will have completed their PhD, and have a strong background in driving research. Computer programming or electronic hardware skill would be advantageous. Ability to work independently is important.

Applications should be sent by email to Dana Bento at of Human Resources at Schepens. Please include a CV, the expected date of availability, and contact information for at least 2 referees.

Please complete the voluntary self-identification form:

The Institute is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.

Schepens Eye Research Institute
20 Staniford Street
Boston, MA 02114
United States

Monday, September 17, 2012

Get Involved with Voluntary Standards

by Carol Pollack-Nelson

Each year, HFES recognizes a person for outstanding contributions to human factors aspects in the broad area of safety. It is a tradition of the Surface Transportation Technical Group to invite the winner to submit a column for the newsletter. The 2011 recipient of the A. R. Lauer Safety Award and author of this year’s Lauer Letter is Carol Pollack-Nelson, principal of Independent Safety Consulting in Rockville, Maryland. Read more about her work in the HFES Bulletin.

Today I read about a “near-miss” experienced by Mike and Carrie Krug, parents of 2-year-old triplets (, 2012). The Krugs live in a home with an in-ground swimming pool. Understandably, they were concerned about the drowning risk it presented to their three toddlers. To address their concern, these parents spent $2,300 to have a “safety net” installed over their pool. “The salesperson told me that if our children got out on the net they would never get wet,” Mike Krug said in the article. “They would just be out suspended on the net and you could retrieve them that way.”

Once the net was installed in their home, it didn’t take long for the Krugs to learn that, in fact, the net does not prevent drowning. One of their children went face-down into the net and into the water. Mr. Krug observed his child was “completely in the water.” Fortunately, he was able to reach down and grab his son. When the Krugs tried to return the pool net, the company refused, insisting that the product complies with the code for pool safety covers issued by ASTM.  As reported in the article, Mr. Krug stated: “I said I wanted my money back because that's not up to my standards and your salesperson never told me about these standards.”

The limitations of voluntary standards for consumer products is an issue that I have written and spoken about many times (Pollack-Nelson and Deppa, 2009; Deppa, Pollack-Nelson & Allen, 2010). My interest in this area is driven by the many hats I wear: as a consultant to manufacturers when they are developing their products; as an expert witness in litigation often testifying against manufacturers; and as a member of various ASTM technical subcommittees and an officer on F15.90, the ASTM Executive Committee overseeing all standards developed under F15. Although these roles may seem divergent at times, they all require the same objective assessment of the adequacy of a product design in light of how that product will ultimately and reasonably be used under foreseeable circumstances.

For those of you not involved in voluntary standards, you might be wondering what their significance is. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is the federal agency charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risk of injury associated with consumer products. They have many tools to protect consumers (e.g., recalls) and one of them is to develop mandatory standards. However, in most instances the CPSC is required to first work with industry to develop voluntary standards before pursuing a mandatory regulation. For this reason, there are many more voluntary standards than mandatory standards.

Voluntary standards can be a useful mechanism for furthering the safety of products. Voluntary standards committees are often composed of individuals with expertise pertaining to the product at issue. Largely consisting of manufacturers, these committees also include retailers, test labs, consumers, and others. Committee members are knowledgeable in the design of the products, how the products are used by consumers, and the injuries associated with their use. Potentially, these committees can develop a standard that is stringent enough to eliminate, guard or warn against any serious and/or likely hazards. Two benefits of voluntary standards over mandatory standards are (1) they can be developed more quickly than mandatory standards because do not require the same public notification and comment process as a mandatory regulation; and (2) there is greater chance of “buy-in” with the standard since those affected by it are involved in its development.

That said, voluntary standards are not always effective in adequately addressing product hazards. There are many reasons for this. One is that voluntary standards are generic in a sense. They are typically written for a class of products rather than any one particular product. As such, the standard may not have provisions covering every hazardous aspect of a product.

Secondly, voluntary standards are consensus standards. That means that what ends up in the standard is only what was agreeable to most on the committee. While some standards committees strive to have the most stringent requirements possible, others do not. And while committees include consumer representatives, industry voices are often louder, stronger, and much greater in number than consumer participants. Most voluntary standards have one, or a few at best, consumer members. It is difficult to find consumers who have the interest, understanding and technical knowledge to meaningfully participate on standards subcommittees. Many times, consumer members are actually parents who have lost a child or family member as a result of the very hazard being addressed in the standard. These people are often very passionate and knowledgeable, but they are outnumbered.

The effectiveness of a standard for addressing a hazard depends both on whether or not it focuses on the particular hazard, as well as where the proverbial bar is set. If there is a lot of disagreement or even if just a few members are opposed to the incorporation of safety provisions, the bar gets lowered. This can take place even when hazards are well known, children have died AND technical fixes are known to exist.

The ANSI standard for window blinds is one example of an ineffective and inadequate standard. The strangulation hazard associated with accessible cords on window coverings has been known to industry since at least the early 1980s. Since that time, there has been an average of 12 deaths each year on cords from window blinds. The window covering industry has put warnings—lots of them—on the blinds including labels on the bottom rail and hang-tags on the pull-cord. Yet 12 children continue to die each year, just as they did 30 years ago. While many consumers may be aware of the pull-cord hazard, others are not; and many parents are unaware of the strangulation hazard posed by the inner cord running through the body of the window covering. If it were not possible to eliminate the risk, the placement of warnings on these products, along with an information and education campaign to raise public awareness, might make sense. However, since at least 2000, cordless window coverings have been made by a number of firms (CPSC, 2000). In fact, the major manufacturers of window coverings sell both corded window coverings and those without accessible cords.

There has been a voluntary ANSI standard for window coverings for decades now and it has been revised numerous times since it was first published in 1996 (ANSI/WCMA, 1996). In fact, this standard is undergoing a revision again right now. However, some proposed changes actually weaken earlier standard provisions. Further, despite the fact that the technology exists to eliminate this hazard once and for all, the new version of this voluntary standard continues to allow accessible cords.

The ANSI standard for gas fireplaces is another standard currently undergoing change (ANSI/CSA, 2003). However, in this case the revisions are aimed at reducing burn injuries involving these products. Previous versions of the standard permitted the accessible glass fronts of gas fireplaces to reach temperatures in excess of 500 degrees F. Children were suffering from serious, painful and disfiguring burns from momentary contact with the glass. In May 2011, I petitioned the CPSC, requesting enactment of a mandatory standard to require safeguards on glass fronts of gas fireplaces. The petition was docketed and the public was invited to respond. Not only did the public respond, but industry responded as well. In January 2012, industry representatives announced a plan to address the burn hazard and change the voluntary standard to require a physical barrier as the primary passive solution for all gas fireplaces that are installed less than 4 feet above the floor. The physical barrier must not become hot enough to cause a severe burn. Furthermore, the industry plans to undertake a consumer education campaign to inform consumers as to the burn hazard and the importance of the barrier (Pollack-Nelson, 2012).

The examples discussed here provide important guidance for manufacturers, consumers, and Human Factors and Ergonomics (HF/E) consultants who advise clients on product safety:

Manufacturers must realize that in protecting consumers, they ultimately protect themselves. Compliance with voluntary standards is essential since such standards are often considered to represent a “minimum good manufacturing practice” in litigation. However, voluntary standards are minimum requirements; manufacturers should do their part to ensure that such standards do everything possible to address known hazards. Furthermore, it is up to each manufacturer to conduct its own product hazard assessment and develop internal standards that eliminate or guard against risks wherever technologically feasible.

Consumers must recognize the limitations of voluntary standards. As the pool net example demonstrates, standards are generic and do not account for all possible product designs. Consumers must be aware of unscrupulous and unknowledgeable manufacturers who claim that their product “complies” with all voluntary standards, when in fact, the applicable standard may not address certain hazardous aspects of the product or may not pertain to the product at all.

Human factors and ergonomics professionals who advise industry also have a responsibility when it comes to voluntary standards. Professionals in the field of safety can impact the voluntary standards process by becoming an active member of a technical subcommittee (Deppa, 2011). ASTM, ANSI, and UL welcome objective, technical expertise. There are subcommittees for a wide range of consumer products including recreational products, children’s products, furniture, and household appliances. Contact the administrator for any of these voluntary standards organizations to offer your services. Only by investing time and energy into understanding a standard and knowing the relevant injury and fatality data is it possible to identify weaknesses in the standard. Such weaknesses not only put consumers at risk—they also put manufacturers and others in the supply chain in financial risk if someone becomes injured on the product.

The bottom line is this: Get involved and facilitate the development of strong voluntary standards that protect consumers and manufacturers from harm.

ANSI/CSA (2003). Standard for vented gas fireplace heaters. Mississauga, Canada: Canadian Standards Association.

ANSI /WCMA (1996). ANSI/WCMA American National Standard for Safety of Corded Window Covering Products A100.1-96, New York, NY: WCMA.

Deppa, S. (2011). Participation on voluntary committees for standards and codes by forensic practitioners—a win-win combination. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 55th Annual Meeting, 608-612, Santa Monica, CA.

Deppa, S., Pollack-Nelson, C. & Allen, E.  (2010). “So Your Consumer Product Complies with the Voluntary Safety Standard—Now What?” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society's 54th Annual Meeting, 728-732, Santa Monica, CA.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (2000). CPSC Window Covering Industry Announce Recall to Repair Window Blinds—New Investigation of Children’s Deaths Leads to Redesigned Window Blinds, CPSC News Release 01-023, November 1, 2000.

KXAN (2012). Couple questions safety of pool net. LIN Television of Texas, LIN Television Corporation, Friday, 31 Aug 2012.

Pollack-Nelson, C. (2012). The Burn Hazard Presented by Gas Fireplace Glass, Ergonomics in Design, 20 (3), 14-18, HFES, Santa Monica, CA.

Pollack-Nelson, C. and Deppa, S. (2009). “The Role and Limitations of Voluntary Standards in Consumer Product Safety,” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society's 53rd Annual Meeting, 563-567, Santa Monica, CA.