Man Who Puts Toys Through the Torture Test

Times Staff Writer

Bob Hundemer, who labels himself a "toy tester par excellence ," spends his days at an old missile base here in rural Maryland dropping little plastic things through measuring tubes and watching Rube Goldberg machines open and close toy boxes 7,000 times without a pause.

If a tiny part of a toy drops through the measuring tube, it's a potential choking hazard. If a toy box lid-closer permits a box top to slam down hard after the 7,000th test, it's a potential head-conking hazard.

Hundemer also checks to be sure toys have no sharp edges or points that might cut or poke children. He looks for crib toys that could double as nooses, and searches for all manner of dangers that too frequently get built into toys and other child-related products.

Principal Toy Tester

When Hundemer discovers an edge or a point, a toy on which a child might choke, or some other safety hazard, his work can lead to the recall of hundreds of thousands of toys or toy-related products.

Hundemer is the U.S. government's principal toy tester. He works for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in what used to be a missile crew's barracks.

If he finds a problem, Hundemer sends a report to the commission's compliance section, which then sends it on to the Childrens and Recreational Products Team, better known as the "Toy Team." The nine Toy Team members are federal employees with areas of expertise ranging from engineering through epidemiology to economy.

'Never-Ending Process'

When it comes to child-related products, the Toy Team is the commission's Supreme Court. If the team decides a toy is too dangerous, the commission orders the manufacturer or distributor to recall it and refund the purchase price or correct the problem or replace the product. For minor problems, the commission simply orders a halt to distribution of the item.

"Product safety enforcement involving toys and baby products is a dynamic and never-ending process. Both at the government and private sector levels, I see a strong trend toward even more emphasis on toy safety. It is a trend occurring right now, and one I expect to continue in years to come," said commissioner Terry Scanlon of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Twenty percent of our staff time and budget is allocated to juvenile products. It is the largest single area of our consumer safety activity, and one of the most important."

Last year the commission's compliance section reviewed 293 child-related products and declared 165 of them to be hazardous, said the commission's compliance officer, Christine Nelson. Of the toys that failed, 63 have already been recalled, while some products tested late in 1985 will be recalled this year, Nelson said.

She observed that only about six toy companies or distributors annually threaten not to recall or not to quit distributing toys when told to do so. In those cases, the commission threatens legal action, and in five out of six cases that's enough to get the companies to do what they're told, Nelson said. In the sixth case, the commission files a legal complaint with an administrative law judge who can order compliance. The judge also can require recall from consumers and retailers and have the offending products seized from warehouses and retail stores.

Most companies are glad to cooperate with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, if only to avoid potential lawsuits by parents of injured children. However, in some cases that cooperation occurs only after the commission unearths a dangerous product. For example, last year, while investigating a problem with the Hedstrom Co. of Bedford, Pa., commission staff members came across a defect in a Hedstrom stroller hinge that, according to a commission press release, could be dangerous "in the event the stroller unexpectedly folds up, (because) it is possible for a child to be injured . . . incidents have resulted in at least six finger amputations and eight other serious injuries to children after fingers were caught in the stroller's side hinge area."

Consumer Product Safety Commission compliance officer Marc Schoem described what happened after the commission discovered the hazard.

"Although Hedstrom had not produced the problem stroller since 1982, they agreed to take corrective action by offering free hinge locking devices to consumers who had bought the strollers," Schoem said. "The CPSC still charged Hedstrom with failing to report a defect in a product as required by the federal Consumer Product Safety Act. We filed an action against Hedstrom's parent company, Brown Group Inc. of St. Louis, and they settled with the commission for a $150,000 fine. It's important to note that, since then, the Brown Group has sold Hedstrom."

Joint Press Release

Just last month Hedstrom and the CPSC sent out a joint press release announcing Hedstrom will provide free hinge-locking devices for about 625,000 strollers that already have been distributed.

Hedstrom promised to send the hinge-locking devices to anyone who has bought a Li'l Steeler Stroller with one of 112 model numbers that indicate a possibly defective product. Persons with strollers they suspect are defective may call Hedstrom at (800) 233-3271.

Defective products come to the commission's attention in a number of ways. There's a toll-free hot line--(800) 638-CPSC, the commission monitors 66 hospital emergency rooms throughout the country for injuries related to consumer products, it subscribes to a media clipping service, and it receives a sampling of coroners' reports from across the nation. "We also get numerous unsolicited letters from consumers, and occasionally a toy company contacts us about a competitor's product," Nelson said.

Because the CPSC does not test all the 150,000 or so toy products on retailers' shelves, it relies heavily on voluntary safety standards established by the Toy Manufacturers of America, the industry's trade association, which annually holds a toy safety seminar for its members.

The voluntary standards are currently being revised by the TMA. Mechanical engineer John Preston, a member of the CPSC Toy Team, makes recommendations to the manufacturer's association at meetings where the standards are being revised.

Stability Standards Stiffened

"We got the TMA to change their voluntary regulations to include some more stringent requirements for toys that fire projectiles," Preston said. "We also got them to stiffen the stability standards for ride-on toys. As a result of several asphyxiation deaths . . . we got the TMA to agree to warning labels on crib gyms suggesting that the product be removed from the crib when a child reaches 5 months of age or can push up on his or her hands or knees. They agreed to make tests for rattles and squeeze toys and teethers more stringent, and that was of major importance.

"We don't win them all," Preston continued. "For example, we asked the TMA to set requirements limiting the lengths of strings on toys for all toys, rather than just crib and playpen toys. But they wouldn't agree to that because a pull toy would be useless if the string were less than 12 inches long. However, I feel the voluntary standards were much improved by the TMA's revisions.

"Plans are to publish the revised standards next month. But the process is never ending. We already are planning to ask the TMA to improve the language on labels that indicate ages of children for which a particular toy is appropriate. Sometimes that age labeling relates to safety. When that is the case, we probably are going to ask the TMA to require the inclusion on the label of such language as 'not recommended for children under 3 due to possible danger from choking,' or some such applicable message."

Like the CPSC, the Toy Manufacturers of America is not equipped to safety test every toy on the market. So the TMA depends on major manufacturers to test their toys for safety. In the vast majority of cases, that reliance is well placed, said Doug Thomson, president of the trade group.

4-Stage Safety Procedure

Large toy companies generally put their products through extensive safety testing programs. At the giant toy corporation Hasbro Inc. in Pawtucket, R.I., Frank Tout, associate vice president for quality assurance, described his company's four-stage safety procedure:

"First we review the concept itself to see if the toy can be designed to be safe," Tout said. "Then our design engineering department takes over during development of the toy, and the toy runs a gauntlet of safety tests in our own lab and often in outside labs as well. When the toy is ready for production, the quality assurance department takes over and tests it again, by picking toys randomly from our assembly line or from shipments from outside suppliers and checking every piece of the sample. The fourth piece of the puzzle is the consumer. Once the toy has been shipped, we have an active ear to the ground for any complaints. If we get a complaint we don't just satisfy that consumer, but also we look for a pattern to see if the particular consumer's problem is a safety hazard in general. If that proves to be the case, the worst scenario is recalling the product, but that's only happened once in the history of the company."

The Toy Manufacturers of America finds three or four safety code violations annually, Thomson said, adding that his group represents the manufacturers and importers "of 90% to 95% of all the toys on retailers' shelves throughout the country." Although the TMA has no strong enforcement teeth, Thomson observed that every time there is a violation he contacts the responsible company. "In the seven years I've done this," Thomson said, "the manufacturer or importer has immediately taken care of the problem.

"We don't claim perfection," he continued, "But all things considered I think toys are generally safe products, and we're making them increasingly safe. Let's put it this way. I have a 2-year-old granddaughter, and I have no hesitation going into any toy store and buying any product off the shelf for her as long as it's labeled for her age group."

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