Each year the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) identifies product safety priorities. Last week, the new Chair of the ACCC, Ms Gina Cass-Gottlieb, used her speech at the National Consumer Congress 2022 to outline the ACCC's seven Product Safety Priorities for 2022. Ms Cass-Gottlieb stated that the priorities are intended to encompass both longstanding priorities and emerging product safety issues.
1. Improving the mandatory standards regulatory framework
More broadly, Ms Cass-Gottlieb said it was important that Australia's regulatory framework for product compliance was dynamic and aligned with rules in domestic and international markets. Against this backdrop, the ACCC will seek to implement new policy initiatives to make it easier for manufacturers to rely on trusted overseas standards for products supplied in Australia.
The ACCC has indicated that it will support the Commonwealth Treasury's regulatory impact assessment in relation to improving the existing compliance framework under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) and focus on implementing new policy initiatives.
2. Online marketplaces
Online marketplaces are again on the ACCC's radar, with Ms Cass-Gottlieb noting that the shift toward online shopping had accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic. So far five online marketplaces (eBay Australia, Amazon Australia, AliExpress, Catch.com.au and MyDeal.com.au) have signed the Australian Product Safety Pledge, which encourages signatories to demonstrate their commitment to product safety and to report on their product safety initiatives.
Ms Cass-Gottlieb explained that the ACCC will conduct online surveillance of, and continue engagement with, online marketplaces. This will include:
- expanding its work in relation to the Pledge and encourage further adoption;
- monitoring unsafe, non-compliant and banned products online and engaging with online marketplaces and other regulators to address priority issues and take enforcement action where appropriate; and
- collaborating with other regulators globally to align on initiatives for product safety risks relating to online marketplaces.
3. Protecting young children
The ACCC's 2022 product safety priorities demonstrate a significant focus on high-risk product safety issues affecting young children, who the ACCC observes to be vulnerable users of consumer products.
The safety issues which will be under the spotlight include hazards arising from high-powered magnets, baby dummies, sleep aids and toys for children under 3 years.
The ACCC has signalled that it will pursue appropriate regulatory and enforcement actions, will develop communication and education strategies for parents and guardians, and work with suppliers to improve recall effectiveness in relation to young children's products subject to a safety issue.
4. Inclined products for infants
Ms Cass-Gottlieb built upon last year's product safety enforcement priority in relation to infant sleeping products, by announcing a priority relating to preventing injuries and deaths to infants caused by "inclined products" such as baby bouncers, rockers and other sleep accessories.
The ACCC has foreshadowed that it will consult with a range of industry, medical and consumer stakeholders to determine what regulatory intervention, such as product-specific regulations, and education activities may be required.
5. Toppling furniture
The ACCC will implement strategies to manage the safety risks posed by toppling furniture, which remains a priority from last year. Ms Cass-Gottlieb explained that toppling furniture causes at least one death per year and almost 20 injuries per week. Currently, there are no specific requirements for warning labels or for anchoring devices to be supplied with such products.
The ACCC announced that it will take action by:
- consulting with stakeholders about a range of potential policy options to prevent injuries and deaths caused by toppling furniture; and
- increasing education and awareness of the safety hazards involved.
6. Button batteries
The ACCC first identified button batteries as a product safety priority in 2019. Ms Cass-Gottlieb identified that there has been a number of deaths, and on average, one child per month is seriously injured after ingesting a button battery in Australia.
The long-awaited button batteries mandatory standards come into effect on 22 June 2022, and the ACCC is likely to ramp up its focus on monitoring compliance with the standards. Ms Cass-Gottlieb noted that enforcement of these "world-leading" standards is a "vital step" towards preventing further deaths and injuries to children, and the ACCC has identified that it will take enforcement action to address non-compliance.
7. Lithium-ion batteries
One new priority for the ACCC over the next year relates to scoping product safety issues and identifying potential hazard prevention strategies relating to lithium-ion batteries.
Ms Cass-Gottlieb acknowledged that lithium-ion batteries are found in many goods including mobile phones, smart watches, laptops and e-scooters, and said there had been a concerning increase in reports of burns and property damage from consumer products containing lithium-ion batteries. The ACCC will therefore focus on:
- scoping potential safety hazards;
- engaging with stakeholders (including State and Territory electrical regulators) to assess potential risk controls; and
- any appropriate risk mitigation strategies, including potential improvements to the current regulatory framework.
The ACCC's other product safety work
These yearly safety priorities are in addition to the ACCC's other core work in the product safety area, which includes monitoring safety hazards and injury reports, working with other industry-specific product regulators, product recalls and compliance with the ACL, including in relation to product safety regulations, safety defects and consumer guarantees.
In her speech at the National Consumer Congress, Ms Cass-Gottlieb:
- re-emphasised the ACCC's commitment to introducing a general safety provision which would prohibit the sale of unsafe goods in Australia;
- indicated that the ACCC will be closely looking at greenwashing to ensure the accuracy of "sustainability" representations made by businesses seeking to increase consumer demand for products with "green credentials".
Ms Cass-Gottlieb also explained that the ACCC's international product safety work will be key as Australia takes up the Presidency role of the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network commencing on 1 July 2022 for the next 12 months, which is a network of international consumer protection agencies. Ms Cass-Gottlieb said that in this forum, the ACCC will focus on "tackling global concerns relating to environmental claims and sustainability, the digital economy and scams".