Ever heard of “voluntary” safety standards? Voluntary or not, they’re a big deal. The technical term is “voluntary consensus safety standards” or “non-government consensus standards,” and they may guide the design of your consumer product. In fact, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) considers voluntary standards “to be a safety floor from which to design your product; and you should always consider finding ways to build safety into your product and go above and beyond these standards.” Basically, “voluntary” standards often are mandatory and express the bare minimum safety requirements for your consumer product. CPSC’s role in setting those standards is about to increase.

Traditionally, voluntary safety standard organizations like the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) develop voluntary standards for consumer products with limited input from CPSC. Until recently, a CPSC employee could only participate in voluntary standard development groups on a non-voting basis and could not accept leadership positions in the groups. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office urged CPSC to revisit this limitation and assume a more active role in developing voluntary safety standards for product safety. At the recent January 27, 2016 decisional meeting, CPSC commissioners formally enacted new rules that allow CPSC employees to vote and accept leadership positions in voluntary standards committees. The commissioners unanimously approved the rule change.

We should take a moment to appreciate the gravity of this rule change. First, CPSC participation in the voluntary standards development process likely will result in “the standards . . . being stronger and more effective,” according to Rachel Weintraub, consumer advocate, legislative director, and general counsel at the Consumer Federation of America. For consumer products manufacturers, stronger standards will require a heightened awareness of the specific standards in place and increased diligence in complying with those standards. Second, the rule change will likely lead to increased CPSC enforcement of voluntary standards, especially those incorporated into CPSC’s own safety regulations. As CPSC becomes more directly involved in writing voluntary standards, there will be more political pressure for CPSC to enforce those standards, and we expect they will play a more significant role in CPSC’s enforcement efforts. So pay attention!