No consensus on upholstered furniture flammability standard

No consensus on upholstered furniture flammability standard

Earlier predictions that the furniture industry and CPSC were about to agree on a draft upholstered furniture standard may have been premature. At a meeting between the two groups at CPSC Headquarters in Bethesda, MD on March 1, industry representatives sought to persuade CPSC staff to amend testing methods contained in the staff’s current draft standard.

Present at the meeting were representatives of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association (AFMA), the Fabric Coalition (a group of upholstery fabric makers), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM).

Also present were CPSC’s project manager Dale Ray, Chairman Hal Stratton and Commissioner Mary Gall, and other CPSC staff.

While the industry has not abandoned its support of a new federal rule for upholstered furniture, it wants less complicated and less costly testing. For example, under CPSC’s draft rule, a fabric or piece of furniture must resist ignition when a small open flame is applied for 20 seconds. Industry wants that changed to 5 seconds. There is also concern about requiring separate component testing of fabric, foam and barriers, as well as full scale testing of complete furniture pieces. For example, if you set an easy chair on fire in the laboratory, the resulting fire may not correlate to a “real world” fire in a consumer’s home. Industry would prefer not to have to do full-scale testing.

In a situation that is increasingly common, the industry groups find themselves bedeviled by competing standards. The industry had developed its own voluntary flammability standard–amended in 1983–that addressed furniture fires caused by cigarette ignition. CPSC estimates that more than 85% of the industry meets this standard, and that 80% of furniture production resists cigarette ignition. According to CPSC, this represents a 70% improvement in ignition from smoldering cigarettes since 1980.

The state of California currently uses component tests in its regulatory procedures for upholstered furniture flammability. California’s Technical Bulletin 117 is mandatory for all furniture sold in the state. Industry groups would prefer to deal with one federal standard.

CPSC Commissioners voted 3-0 last fall to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) to expand the regulatory proceeding on upholstered furniture flammability to include ignitions both by smoldering cigarettes and by small open flames.

This action builds on CPSC’s staff draft small open flame standard, developed in 2001. It also supposedly heralded a new development–that of a united furniture and fabric industry that now supported a federal standard to deal with upholstered furniture flammability.

Even though much of the currently produced furniture is cigarette-ignition resistant, according to CPSC, there were an estimated 340 deaths and 730 injuries related to cigarette ignition of upholstered furniture in 1998, the latest year for which there is complete information. By contrast, there were 80 deaths and 350 injuries related to ignition by small open flame. (1) (Small open flame ignition is, by definition, caused by cigarette lighters, matches, or candles, usually by child play.)

The American furniture industry has over 1,500 manufacturers of upholstered furniture, with annual sales estimated at $8.4 billion in 1997. Imports add some $550 million in sales. There are 100 to 200 manufacturers of upholstered furniture fabric. CPSC estimates that the average life of most upholstered furniture is 15-17 years, with over 400 million pieces of upholstered furniture being used in the U.S. today. (2)

The debate about how to protect consumers from furniture fires has consumed the CPSC almost since its inception in 1973. While most furniture on the market today does reflect industry-sponsored improvements that have greatly reduced the propensity of upholstered furniture to ignite, CPSC is currently focused on finding a solution for “small open flame” fires. As most in the furniture business and in the government regulatory agency already know, these deaths and injuries are the result of unsupervised small children playing with matches, lighters or candles.

(1) CPSC-16 CFR Chapter 11, Subchapter D, Ignition of Upholstered Furniture by Small Open Flames and/or Smoldering Cigarettes: Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Request for Comments and Information, Federal Register, Vol. 68, No. 205, October 23, 2003.

(2) Ibid.

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