By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor

A new and completely different type of safety website is now open for business. Almost anyone can post information on SaferProducts.gov about a consumer product they believe might be dangerous or has already caused a safety problem. Not only will this database of consumer comments be public, it will also be searchable.

“Through this database consumers will have open access to product safety information that they’ve never seen before, and this information will empower them to make safer choices,” said Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

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The idea is by making information about safety hazards easy to report and easy to access, needless injuries and deaths will be prevented.

However, manufacturers are very leery about SaferProducts.gov. They worry that erroneous or even malicious information will be posted that could hurt their businesses.

“We’re not opposed to the database,” says Rosario Palmieri of the National Association of Manufacturers. “We’re just opposed to inaccurate information being in the database.”

Safety advocates say the site is both long overdue and greatly needed because manufacturers are often reluctant to share information about product dangers. It can be months or even years between the time people report a problem product and a recall is announced.

“This information shouldn’t be buried the way it has been in the past,” said Ami Gadhia with Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports). “We think this is important information that can potentially help save lives and will empower consumers to make their own decisions.”

SaferProducts.gov has been in a soft-launch phase since the beginning of the year. The National Association of Manufacturers petitioned the CPSC to delay the public launch, but the site went live last Friday.

“We will monitor this very closely to make sure the information on the database is accurate,” CPSC chairman Tenenbaum assures me. “We believe that as time goes on, many of these concerns by manufacturers will be taken care of and the database will be an excellent source of information for manufacturers, consumers and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”

How does the site work? How will accuracy be maintained?
To submit a hazard report, you must provide the name of the manufacturer of the product you are concerned about or had a safety problem with. If something did happen, you’ll be asked to describe the incident and how the product was being used.

If there were injuries or death, you’ll need to give specific details. You can also provide, if you want, the name of any victim and indicate whether they received medical treatment. You can upload photos or any documents you want the CPSC or others to see.

Also, remember this website is only about safety. Complaints that are about the cost or quality of a product will not be posted.

Finally, before submitting the report, you must certify that the report is true and correct. In the FAQ section, the CPSC says it will remove false reports and “will seek legal remedies against those involved.”

The CPSC has five business days to provide the report to the manufacturer. The company then has 10 business days to respond.  (Because of this 15-day window, the first consumer posts won’t show up on SaferProducts.gov until the first week in April.)

The CPSC says if a manufacturer can show a report is “materially inaccurate” — for instance the company does not make such a product — the report will not be posted. Manufacturers say that’s not what they’ve been told.

“What they’ve told us is they’re going to post it first and fix it later and we don’t think that will help the public,” said Palmieri. “It’s a recipe for lots of inaccurate information in the database.”

Companies who respond within the 15-day window can post a response to any report involving them that will go public the same time the comment is published. Manufacturer’s comments can also be published at a later date.

Anonymous reports will be accepted but not posted. Your contact information will never be included in your online report. And it won’t be provided to the manufacturer unless you give your written permission.

This really bothers Richard Woldenberg, chairman of Learning Resources, an educational toy company based in Illinois.

“The opportunity for mischief is really significant,” he said. “A competitor could make filings. Lawyers who sued you can make filings. People who have an axe to grind can make filings.”

Woldenberg wants the ability to contact everyone who posts a comment about his product to find out more about the problem and to make sure the report is accurate.

“If the government wants to host a database then they should make damn sure that the information is right,” Woldenberg added.

“It’s really a very simple concept,” said Rachel Weintraub with the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s a database with many checks and balances and opportunities for comment by industry. I think this opposition is really just clinging to the status quo which has served manufacturers very well and has had a negative impact on consumers.”

My two cents
I understand why manufacturers are concerned about this site. I would be, too.

The CPSC admits it does not have the resources to verify every report received. Language stating that the Commission does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information will appear as a disclaimer throughout the database, and on any documents printed from the site.

But I also think the manufacturers brought this on themselves by fighting product recalls, telling the public products with known hazards were safe, and blaming “product misuse” for what were really design flaws.

SaferProducts.gov gives consumers much more power. But the ability to post comments — unfiltered and unverified — already exists on all sorts of websites. The government’s site has built-in safeguards. The CPSC says it wants to get it right. They need to get it right for everyone’s sake.

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