The first report by the Consumer Safety Investigation Commission has left the family involved in a fatal water heater accident in 2005 far from satisfied.
The report, released last week, censured Paloma Industries Ltd., which made the heater, for having “inadequate safety measures” but otherwise toed the line of the industry ministry’s report on the matter issued in August 2006.
The victim’s family had hoped a more thorough probe would be conducted and the commission would force stronger measures to be taken to ensure such accidents don’t happen again.
Yukiko Joshima, 60, lost her son, Hiroyuki, 18, in November 2005 when he and his elder brother were poisoned by a gas leak from a faulty Paloma water heater in Tokyo. His brother survived.
“They could have done more. I’m not satisfied at all,” she said.
The gas poisoning was one of the incidents that lead to the eventual establishment of the commission in October 2012. Set up through a revision of the consumer safety law, it is responsible for investigating accidents involving consumer products ranging from food to toys and appliances.
But critics say it lacks the staff and resources to meet its mandate.
At a news conference Friday, Yotaro Hatamura, head of the commission, acknowledged the criticism being heaped on the panel’s work and said he was relieved it had finally reached the point at which it could release the report, following a delay at the end of last year.
While the commission initially aimed to investigate 100 cases a year, it has only dealt with seven so far. The slow pace has disappointed many consumers caught up in product-related accidents.
“Based on the methodology used this time, we hope to see work continue on the second and third cases and so on,” said an official at the Consumer Affairs Agency, which oversees the commission.
Yasuhiro Irei, 39, lost his son, Takahiro, 3, when he drowned in a kindergarten pool in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, in July 2011. The case was targeted by the commission for investigation.
“The investigation is slow and I haven’t been briefed on its progress,” Irei said. “They said they stand on the side of the consumers, but I continue to feel stress.”
Other families feel the same way. Those whose cases were not chosen for investigation said the panel did not fully explain why.
The commission set up a liaison post in November last year to smooth over ties with such complainants.
A member of the team in charge of the Paloma case visited the scene of the accident on the anniversary of Hiroyuki Uejima’s death to offer prayers.
But the commission postponed its report on the accident at the last minute after his mother called the examination “insufficient.”
“Investigations are difficult without the cooperation of family members. But we cannot conduct investigations according to their wishes either. It’s difficult to keep a distance,” a senior Consumer Affairs Agency official said.
The commission has seven members and lists 38 university professors, doctors and other specialists as those who do the actual investigative work. Because it has been unable to find qualified personnel willing to work full-time, all commission members and specialists work part-time with the support of the 22 staff members of the secretariat.
One member said the report on the Paloma water heaters “examined the accident from a broad perspective and it didn’t have any omissions. We’ve done as much as we could.”
But the member also said the secretariat was carrying a “heavy burden” and that “I wish we had twice as many staff members as we have now.”
Such an increase appears highly unlikely because appropriations related to the commission were cut in the fiscal 2014 budget.
Yoshiko Miura, a consumer consultant familiar with product accidents, said the commission “should investigate each case carefully to draw out specific lessons” even if it works with limited resources. “If the commission respects consumers’ perspectives and continues investigations appropriately, it will win people’s trust,” she said.