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Results elude new consumer accident panel

Kyodo

After its inception roughly a year ago, the Consumer Safety Investigation Commission came up with a goal of handling 100 consumer product accident cases per year but ended up taking up just six, with none ending in a conclusive report.

The Consumer Affairs Agency unit says it is being careful in probing the causes of the accidents, but that its staff of seven part-time members — who are supported by 38 experts, also part time — is preventing it from promptly fulfilling its mission.

“I think we had assumed quite a big role,” Yotaro Hatamura, head of the commission, said at a press conference in late September just days ahead of its first anniversary on Oct. 1.

The six cases included a fatal accident involving a faulty gas water heater, a deadly swimming pool accident at a kindergarten, low frequency noise from an water heater, and a nonfatal accident in a parking garage.

Three had already been probed by other state offices. The commission’s work on these cases just served to review them.

“We must find measures to prevent a recurrence by starting probes into each separate case,” Hatamura said. “We have been constantly reminded of a new perspective that we must take into account every time we have a discussion.”

The probes are handled by the 38 experts, who include physicians and university professors armed with engineering knowledge. They report to the seven commission members, who meet monthly to deliberate what the investigators find. The commission is assisted by 22 secretariat staff members of the Consumer Affairs Agency.

What it produced in its first year was interim reports on two accidents in Tokyo — one involving an escalator and the other an elevator. Both were based on probes by other state offices. The commission said it will conduct its own probes.

Requests for investigations had been filed by the next of kin in the hope of preventing further accidents. One said the work of the commission was appreciated and expressed hope it will work from the perspective of the consumer. Another expressed frustration, saying the panel is moving too slowly.

The Japan Transportation Safety Board has eight full-time members in its total of 13. It also has about 100 investigators nationwide who are state employees. In 2012 alone, it compiled reports on 15 aviation and 13 railway accidents.

Based on the poor track record from last year, the Consumer Affairs Agency lowered the commission’s goal to 30 cases per year from 100 and pared down the budget request for investigatory expenses for fiscal 2014 to ¥1.18 million from ¥1.33 million in fiscal 2013, which is a rather rare action for a government office.

“We are already struggling with six cases. We can’t do more,” Hatamura said.