Nixon Signs Law to Protect Consumer Safety Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Consumer Product Safety Act established an independent agency of the federal government to investigate the causes of product-related injuries and to develop regulations to control their occurrence.

Summary of Event

The Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972 (CPSA) established the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) as an independent agency of the federal government. The CPSC was given authority to identify unsafe products, establish standards for labeling and product safety, recall defective products, and ban products that posed unreasonable risks to consumers. In order to ensure compliance with its directives, the CPSC was given authority to impose civil and criminal penalties, including fines and jail sentences. Consumer Product Safety Act (1972) Consumer protection Consumer Product Safety Commission [kw]Nixon Signs Law to Protect Consumer Safety (Oct. 28, 1972) [kw]Law to Protect Consumer Safety, Nixon Signs (Oct. 28, 1972) [kw]Consumer Safety, Nixon Signs Law to Protect (Oct. 28, 1972) [kw]Safety, Nixon Signs Law to Protect Consumer (Oct. 28, 1972) Consumer Product Safety Act (1972) Consumer protection Consumer Product Safety Commission [g]North America;Oct. 28, 1972: Nixon Signs Law to Protect Consumer Safety[00940] [g]United States;Oct. 28, 1972: Nixon Signs Law to Protect Consumer Safety[00940] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 28, 1972: Nixon Signs Law to Protect Consumer Safety[00940] [c]Health and medicine;Oct. 28, 1972: Nixon Signs Law to Protect Consumer Safety[00940] [c]Manufacturing and industry;Oct. 28, 1972: Nixon Signs Law to Protect Consumer Safety[00940] Magnuson, Warren G. Moss, John E. Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Consumer Product Safety Act Percy, Charles

Prior to the enactment of the CPSA, attempts to reduce hazards associated with consumer products were fragmented and produced uneven results. Federal, state, and local laws addressed safety issues in a limited, piecemeal manner. Industry self-regulation was occasionally attempted by trade associations, testing laboratories, or other standards-making groups. Competitive economic forces often delayed or weakened the establishment of standards, and the inability of the industry legally to enforce standards once they were set often made these attempts little more than window dressing. In 1967, members of Congress decided that there had to be a consistent approach to the problems of injuries resulting from the use of consumer products.

The House of Representatives and the Senate enacted Public Law 90-146 in June, 1967, creating the National Commission on Public Safety. National Commission on Public Safety The commission was given the responsibility of identifying products presenting unreasonable hazards to consumers, examining existing means of protecting consumers from these hazards, and recommending appropriate legislative action. In June, 1970, the commission reported the magnitude of the problem: 20 million people were injured each year in the United States because of incidents related to consumer products, 110,000 people were permanently disabled from such accidents, and 30,000 deaths resulted each year. The cost to the country was estimated to be more than $5.5 billion a year.

The commission suggested that consumers were in more dangerous environments in their own homes than when driving on the highways. The report outlined sixteen categories of products as providing unreasonably hazardous risks to the consumer. Architectural glass used for sliding doors in homes caused approximately 150,000 injuries a year; the commission recommended that safety-glazed materials be required for this use. Home vaporizers that were capable of heating water to 180 degrees repeatedly caused second- and third-degree burns to young children. High-rise bicycles with “banana” seats, high handlebars, and small front wheels encouraged stunt riding and frequently resulted in injuries. Furniture polish with 95 percent petroleum distillates was packaged in screw-cap bottles, colored to resemble soft drinks, and attractively scented; children who mistakenly drank it often suffered fatal chemical pneumonia. Power rotary lawn mowers sliced through fingers and toes and sent objects hurtling toward bystanders. Other products that the commission identified as posing unreasonable potential hazards to consumers included color television sets, fireworks, floor furnaces, glass bottles, household chemicals, infant furniture, ladders, power tools, protective headgear (especially football helmets), unvented gas heaters, and wringer washing machines.

The commission maintained that it was not entirely the responsibility of consumers to protect themselves, because they could reasonably be expected neither to understand all the existing hazards nor to know how to deal effectively with the hazards. Although consumers were becoming increasingly successful at receiving compensation for injuries through common law, manufacturers in general had not responded by taking preventive measures.

The commission suggested that a national program was needed to prevent further accidents and injuries. At hearings before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce on June 24, 1970, the National Commission on Public Safety recommended that an independent agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, be formed. Hearings were held between May of 1971 and February of 1972. These hearings allowed individuals representing both businesses and organizations concerned with health and safety issues to testify. Competing legislation included proposals to give the responsibility for oversight to the existing secretary of health, education, and welfare rather than to an independent agency. One proposal would have permitted the adoption of an existing private standard as a federal safety standard; this proposal, however, was criticized on the grounds that it might result in the acceptance of private standards that were inadequate or anticompetitive. Witnesses at the hearings testified on the problems of hazardous household products, the function and effectiveness of state and local laws, and the role of advertising and the need for public education and debated whether the American economy would reward or punish producers of safe consumer products, which were likely to carry higher prices. Manufacturers, legislators, college professors, attorneys, publishers, representatives of trade and professional associations, engineers, and physicians provided information and opinions on the proposed legislation.

The process brought about intense lobbying and heated debates. Companies saw the CPSC as a potential source of harassment, with government decisions affecting their industries. Sponsors of the legislation complained that regular government agencies listened too closely to the very industries that they were directed to regulate and ignored the voice of the consumer. Long filibustering sessions and angry accusations nearly killed the legislation. Observers claimed that key sponsors could have brought the issue to a vote sooner but were not present when votes on stopping the filibustering were taken. Richard M. Nixon’s presidential administration publicly supported the legislation, but key aides supported the filibustering. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, a business lobby, distributed information kits on how to fight the bill in Congress, calling the legislation a threat to free enterprise. Opponents warned of the authority the agency could have, claiming that it had the potential to turn against the consumer, side with big business, and increase the costs of products to consumers.

As it was passed in 1972, the Consumer Product Safety Act charged the CPSC with four main tasks: to protect the public from unreasonable risks of injury associated with the use of consumer products; to be of assistance to consumers in evaluating and comparing the safety of consumer products; to develop uniform safety standards for consumer products; and to encourage research and investigation into the causes and prevention of product-related deaths, illnesses, and injuries. “Consumer products” were defined both as things sold to customers as well as things distributed for the use of customers (such as component parts). Specifically excluded were tobacco and tobacco products, motor vehicles and equipment, pesticides, firearms and ammunition, aircraft, boats and equipment, drugs, cosmetics, and foods, as these fell under the jurisdiction of other Hexisting agencies. Responsibility for a product was extended to include producers, importers, and, basically, anyone who handled the product in the stream of commerce.


The CPSC established the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) in order to collect and investigate information on injuries and deaths related to consumer products. NEISS is a computer-based system tied to about one hundred hospital emergency rooms. The information in this system allows the commission to compute a product “hazard index.” Products with the highest hazard indices—such as cleaning agents, swings and slides, liquid fuels, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles—are targeted for further studies and possible regulation. The CPSC is authorized to perform in-depth studies on accidents and to investigate the effects and costs of these injuries to individuals and the country as a whole. If the CPSC believes there is significant cause, it can investigate the industry and product in question with the goal of encouraging voluntary industry safety standards or initiate mandatory safety standards of its own.

If CPSC investigators believe that safety standards are required, they will research the product, develop test methods if necessary, and propose an appropriate safety standard. Proposals for appropriate standards are also solicited from the affected industry. Interested organizations, individuals, and industry representatives testify during open hearings on the proposed standards. After the hearings, the standards may be modified or enacted as proposed. Products that fail to meet the standards within a set period of time (usually from one to six months) may be pulled from store shelves, and manufacturers may face fines as well as jail sentences. If adequate safety standards cannot be designed, court action may be taken to have the products banned. So that unreasonable demands are not placed on a small company, fines for violations may be limited, or establishments of particular sizes may be given extensions of time in which to comply with regulations.

The establishment of specific standards is a process that is frequently viewed with concern by the manufacturers involved. When changes in manufacturing, product design, or labeling are suggested, manufacturers’ associations respond with proposals, which include estimates of the additional costs necessary to implement the changes. Cost-benefit criteria are considered to determine if the benefits of a proposed action can be justified by the attendant costs. This is not an easy issue to revolve. For example, the changes that were contemplated in the design of power lawn mowers included locating pull cords away from chokes and throttles, installing footguards, redesigning exhaust systems, and installing automatic cutoffs. The enacted changes increased the price of the power lawn mower to the consumer by an average of twenty-two dollars.

Manufacturers, legislators, and administrative figures all were aware of the potential power of the CPSC. The establishment and enforcement of standards had the potential to raise the costs of manufacturing and, consequently, increase prices to consumers. Regulations had the potential to limit the types and quality of consumer products on the market.

Passage of the Consumer Product Safety Act did not bring an end to the debate. The CPSC’s first action was to establish flammability standards for mattresses. As soon as the new regulations were established, the CPSC was promptly taken to court both by manufacturers’ associations and by consumer groups unhappy with the standards. Manufacturers claimed that they were being unfairly asked to absorb the costs of switching materials and conducting new testing procedures; the problem, the manufacturers alleged, was really caused by careless cigarette smokers. Consumer groups claimed that the standards were not strict enough, as small manufacturers were given additional time during which they could sell mattresses that did not meet the flammability standards if such mattresses were prominently so labeled. Consumer groups wanted only safe mattresses on the market, without a time delay.

In spite of the potential for unlimited power claimed by opponents, the CPSC—a watchdog agency—soon became the watched. Critics of regulatory agencies argue that solutions to safety problems cost money and that these costs will be passed along to consumers. Direct costs, such as those involved in retooling, testing, labeling, and changes in personnel and material, are relatively easy to determine. Trade associations and manufacturers argue that government standards actually limit consumers’ freedom of choice, increase costs, put people out of work, and lead to excessive governmental control. Many associations advocate self-regulation in order to preempt government involvement. Consumer-protection advocates contend that if self-regulation could solve the problem, there would not be any problem. They also argue that costs are inevitable when safety is concerned. Indirect costs, including hospital and doctors’ fees, time lost from work, and pain and suffering from injuries, must be paid, whether by injured consumers, insurance companies, or manufacturers. Regardless of who pays directly, the ultimate cost is passed on, whether to the consumer or to the public as a whole. Consumer Product Safety Act (1972) Consumer protection Consumer Product Safety Commission

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burda, Joan M. An Overview of Federal Consumer Law. Chicago: American Bar Association, 1998. Practical guide prepared by the American Bar Association.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Commerce Clearing House. Consumer Product Safety Act: Law and Explanation. Chicago: Author, 1972. Contains the text of the law and an overview of its meaning and intent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Joel R., ed. Consumerism in the United States: An Inter-Industry Analysis. New York: Praeger, 1980. The history of consumerism is examined in ten industries. The roles of consumer groups, industries, individual companies, and the government are explored. Describes the effects of consumerism and legislation and the reactions by the businesses studied.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Robert N., ed. Protecting the Consumer Interests. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1976. An edited version of papers presented by the National Affiliation of Concerned Business Students. Chapter 10, “The Consumer Product Safety Commission: Its Clout, Its Candor, and Its Challenge,” by R. David Pittle, is an especially valuable essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jasper, Margaret. What If the Product Doesn’t Work? Warranties and Guarantees. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 2003. A layperson’s almanac to laws and federal agencies that deal with consumer concerns and safety. Clearly written reference tool.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Robert N. The Consumer Movement: Guardians of the Marketplace. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A history of consumerism as a social movement, with an examination of the factors that affect the success of regulatory action. Attempts to quantify the economic impact of consumer-protection policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Office of the General Counsel, ed. Compilation of Statutes Administered by CPSC. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1998. Unofficial compilation of laws relating to the Child Protection and Toy Safety Act assembled for consumer use. Indexed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Regulatory Responsibilities of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: Study Guide. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976. Developed as a training manual for entry-level inspectors. Easy to read. Excellent definitions, with detailed lists and explanations of products that are specifically not covered by legislation. Has quizzes and answers.

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Categories: History