Safety comes first

City Furniture joins stability verification program

City Furniture, a Top 100 retailer based in Tamarac, Fla., has been testing its products to make sure they meet industry safety standards for more than a decade. Now it’s taking the next step.

The Home Furnishings Association member is an early participant and the second furniture retailer, after Ashley HomeBrands, in the UL Stability Verification program. The corporate initiative, when completed, will let staff at 19 City Furniture stores throughout Florida give an important assurance to customers: Bedroom clothing storage units they buy are unlikely to accidentally tip over. That claim will be backed up by UL, the global safety certification company also known as Underwriters Laboratory.

“It’s really about the communication to the customer, that we’re doing the right thing,” said Jameson Dion, managing director of global sourcing for City.

The company is a stickler for safety, Dion said. “We have a zero-tolerance policy. We don’t sell or deliver noncompliant products to our customers.” When a problem is found, “we put a hard stop on the products. An alert is blasted out and they’re not released until a correction is made.”

Stability test failures occur less frequently than they did years ago, but Dion aims to eliminate them. That’s why, when he learned about UL’s new Stability Verification program last year and found its cost was reasonable, he acted quickly to enroll.

Michael O’Hara, an engineer and general manager for global furniture at UL, saw the tip-over problem in another way. When he began to develop the stability verification program a couple of years ago, his son was 3, “in the sweet spot where kids were getting hurt. It was very personal with me, to be honest with you.”

Two-thirds of emergency department-treated injuries to children from furniture-only tip-overs occur in kids younger than 5, the Consumer Products Safety Commission staff noted in a 2018 report. Other accidents occur when televisions or other heavy objects placed on top of dressers fall.

Deaths and injuries to children have prompted many furniture recalls. The latest was May 9, when South Shore Industries Ltd. of Canada recalled a 27 ½-inch-high, 56-pound chest that reportedly tipped over onto and killed a 2-year-old child. More than 300,000 units were sold online from October 2009 through July 2018 for about $60, according to the CPSC.

O’Hara can’t imagine a retailer not being able to tell a customer – who might be a friend or neighbor – that a product he’s selling meets industry safety standards. It’s important, O’Hara says, that “when they’re having that conversation with their neighbor, they can say they’re selling them a safe product.”

Most retailers, after all, don’t transact business over the internet with customers who are no more than a name, address and credit card number. They do business face-to-face. If they sell unsafe products, they will face the consequences in their communities.

O’Hara and Dion agree that the tip-over problem is driven by products that don’t meet the safety standard created by ASTM, an organization that develops and publishes voluntary technical standards for a wide range of industries, including furniture.

“The biggest threat is that not everyone is selling product that is compliant,” Dion said.

UL, in an initiative endorsed by the American Home Furnishings Alliance, has set up testing protocols to verify compliance with the ASTM stability standard.

“The UL Stability Verified program provides a scientific, third-party confirmation that a company has the equipment, personnel and procedures in place to accurately conduct stability testing,” AHFA said in an April news release.

Four manufacturers – HFA member Ashley Furniture, Hooker Furniture, Sauder Woodworking and Samson Marketing – completed a pilot program. Several other manufacturers followed.

As a retailer, City Furniture “turned some heads” when it joined the program, O’Hara said. But the move is characteristic of City, whose mission statement includes the lofty goal of making the world a better place, Dion said. The company recycles nearly all its packaging, has converted most of its fleet to natural gas, uses LEED lighting, conserves water and recently pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2040. It contributes generously to community causes.

Safety is another area where the company can make a difference. In fact, Dion hopes City’s action on tip-over will help create critical mass in the industry, pushing manufacturers and other retailers to do away with unsafe products. But, as one of the country’s largest licensees for UL verification participant Ashley Furniture, City is already a big part of the safety movement.

Ricardo Williams tests furniture for stability standards at City Furniture.
Ricardo Williams tests furniture for stability standards at City Furniture.

UL verification requires several steps. The first, according to O’Hara, is for UL personnel to inspect the participating company’s test facility. They make sure the company has the right testing equipment and employees who are trained to conduct tests correctly. The company also must keep careful records of its testing and have systems in place to take corrective action if any furniture fails to withstand the stability tests.

Once all that is verified, UL reviews the test data, confirms the results and finally authorizes the company to use the UL mark, stating “Product Stability Verified,” on its products.

But that’s not the end. UL sends field engineers to spot-check testing facilities. Furthermore, its verification must be renewed annually. “Every six months there’s a touch point,” O’Hara said.

City Furniture’s testing facility has been certified by UL, Dion said, but the real work is just beginning: testing or retesting all its covered products, working with its suppliers and trading partners, completing paperwork. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.

UL has entered the furniture stability issue at a critical moment. The tip-over problem “is receiving the agency’s highest attention at this time,” CPSC Commissioner Peter Feldman told HFA and AHFA members in Washington, D.C., May 15.

ASTM is in the process of revising its standard to cover units 27 inches and higher. Currently, it applies only to units 30 inches and higher. The Home Furnishings Association sits on ASTM’s Furniture Safety Subcommittee and voted for that proposed revision, which drew overwhelming support in balloting.

Ironically, South Shore, which recalled its 27½-inch chest after a reported tip-over fatality, is participating in UL’s Stability Verification program. The recalled product was not part of the program, however, O’Hara said.

The ASTM standard requires a unit to stand upright when empty with a 50-pound weight applied to the open top drawer. ASTM has proposed increasing that weight to 60 pounds. In addition, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) has introduced a bill, called the STURDY Act, that would require 60-pound test weights as well as “dynamic testing” meant to more closely simulate the movements of a child.

O’Hara said he hasn’t seen evidence that the heavier test weight is warranted, but if 60 pounds is required, “we would modify our program. If the standard evolves, we’ll evolve as well.” Dion said the same for City: “We will always be at the forefront of making sure our products are the best in class. We’ll adapt.”

It’s time for other HFA members to adapt as well. In a letter dated Feb. 27, 2019, the CPSC warned furniture retailers against selling units that don’t meet the ASTM safety standard. And a New York state law taking effect this fall bars retailers from selling clothing storage units that don’t meet the ASTM standard.

Retailers across the country should consider compliance mandatory. They also should educate customers about anchoring units to walls or floors to  prevent tip-overs. And they should look for products that have earned the UL verification mark. In turn, they can show that verification to their customers, who will be empowered to make more informed choices.

Without that information, “parents who are shopping for bedroom furniture can’t easily distinguish between chests and dressers that have been designed and tested to this stability standard and those that have not,” said Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance. With that knowledge, parents or guardians of small children should always choose products that are tested and verified as meeting safety standards.

City Furniture plans to stress that point, even if most customers aren’t even asking about tip-over risks yet.

“I want them to ask,” Dion said.

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