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Man Who Puts Toys Through the Torture Test

March 28, 1986|JOHN DREYFUSS | Times Staff Writer

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — 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.

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