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Killer Stoves: A Preventable Hazard in Millions of American Homes

April 5, 2007

Killer Stoves: A Preventable Hazard in Millions of American Homes

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen

We’re here today to discuss killer stoves – stoves in most American homes that manufacturers and sellers know are prone to tipping over and that have caused unconscionable harm for more than 25 years. These are ordinary, freestanding gas and electric ranges found in millions of American homes. Manufacturers and retailers have known for years that the stoves have a tendency to tip over when weight is applied to the open oven door. There have been numerous cases reported to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of death and injury from scalding and burns due to hot foods and liquids spilling from the stove top and from the crushing weight when the range falls over on top of the victim.

This unbelievable problem arose in the early 1980s, when manufacturers of both gas and electric ranges began using lighter-gauge steel to reduce costs – even though they quickly learned that this resulted in a tendency for the appliances to tip over when weight was applied to the oven door. To address this hazard, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) both developed national, voluntary safety standards that require electric and gas ranges manufactured after 1991 to remain stable when 250 pounds of pressure is applied on the oven door for five minutes. These standards also require that metal brackets be delivered with the stove and be installed at the time of delivery to secure the stoves to a wall or the floor.  But, because these are voluntary safety standards, only a small fraction of stoves are installed in homes with the anti-tipping devices.

While the retailers are all aware of the safety hazard, the delivery people they contract with are not equipped or trained to perform the bracket installation service, and the sales people rarely mention the issue to the buyer. Owners’ manuals are supposed to mention these issues, but owners have to search for the information, and we all know this rarely happens. As a result, most homeowners who purchase the ranges don’t know that the units are not secure and are unaware that the brackets are necessary. In recent years, Home Depot and Lowe’s have become major players in this sector, but since Sears has historically dominated the consumer appliance market, we have focused on what we’ve learned about its involvement in this safety issue.

Sears still sells approximately 800,000 ranges a year in the United States. Sears’ staff were told to proceed with a plan to secure the stoves in December 1986. But after initially telling its service and installation managers in 1987 that this additional hardware “will be very simple [to install] in most cases” and “should require very little time,” Sears admitted in an internal memo the same year that the brackets were not typically installed. An internal memo from 1996 said that the brackets were installed for only an estimated 5 percent of ranges sold – and possibly as low as 2-3 percent.

In May 1994, Sears re-evaluated the issue, weighing the pros and cons, and “bottom line” decided it would “take no action to provide installation of anti-tip devices.”  In a 1999 letter to Sears, Underwriters Laboratories informed the retailer that it expected the ranges with the UL Listing Mark to be installed with the anti-tip safety devices supplied by the manufacturers. Sears wrote back a highly misleading letter saying it had been assured by its vendors and suppliers that their electric ranges “have the proper components, warnings, and instructions to be in full compliance with the UL 858.” Sears never mentioned it was not installing the brackets as UL 858 requires.

Sears maintained its refusal to protect its customers even after receiving reports available from the CPSC concerning horrific stove-tipping injuries and deaths. The reports detailed more than 18 deaths and 70 serious injuries between 1980 and June 1999, mostly involving children – some as young as 12 months – and the elderly. There could be as many as 20 million families in America with this safety hazard in their kitchen, and just as many injuries waiting to happen.

The CPSC was aware of the stove-tipping problem since at least 1984. But it never took any steps to require notification to owners and installation of the brackets, or to require redesign of the ranges in the future. We have no confidence today in the commission’s ability to protect consumers, especially after President Bush’s announcement of the nomination of Michael Baroody to be its chairman. Baroody is currently the executive vice president for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and has spent most of his professional life as a lobbyist and political operative on behalf of corporate interests.

Earlier this month, Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) requested and received documentation from the CPSC to enable the House commerce committee to investigate and hold hearings on this problem.

Today, to avoid any more preventable injuries, we are calling on the sellers of ranges to notify all owners of the danger of tipping stoves and the need for safety brackets, and to install the brackets for any consumers who want it. This action would come far too late for the many people who have been maimed and killed by this preventable hazard, but we hope it comes in time to save countless others.