Bill Kitzes Product Safety Management

Kitzes on Safety

Weed "Whackers"

Originally published in the CCH Consumer Product Safety Guide, 2003.

A Weed “Whacker” as used here is a type of home garden power tool similar to a mono filament weed eater that employs metal cutting elements on the power head. While reasonably safe designs may exist, many past attempts have created unreasonably dangerous conditions for consumers.

Fifteen years ago, some of the first metal weed whackers were sold as “brush cutters.” These models consisted of a many-toothed circular saw blade attached to a gas powered motor on a long pole. A chest harness helped the user hold the heavier units in place. Although thrown objects were noted as a serious hazard for these early designs (bystanders were told to stay 30 feet away), the warnings and instructions often ignored the inherent danger that the saw blade could get caught up in the thick brush and “kick back,” thus throwing all of the energy stored in the blade back into the pole. With the harness providing a pivot point, the saw blade, moving fast enough to sheer through a 2 x 4, could rotate completely over the operator’s head and cut right through the calf muscle, shattering the tibia and fibula (lower leg bones) from behind.

Soon, these solid saw blade designs were often replaced by 3 or more hinged, pivoting blades attached to a central hub. The hinges were intended to “deflect” if they hit a stationary object, thus preventing the dangerous kick back injuries of the previous generation. With this new design, however, came a new risk of injury.

In early 1998, a young maintenance worker and former high school football star had barely started up the gasoline engine of his weed whacker when the central plastic hub spontaneously broke apart. Flying metal blades struck his legs, causing substantial injury. What made this accident even more tragic was that, unbeknownst to the operator, the unit had been silently recalled by the manufacturer before his injury.

Within the first few weeks of sales, a number of these plastic-hubed units had broken apart, throwing blades in all directions. The company quietly pulled these units back from retailers and replaced them with a metal-hub design. But despite this obvious danger, the distributor never advised consumers. Operators like the football star who had already purchased the plastic-hub models were left with products the company clearly knew were defective and unreasonably dangerous. The case went to trial and the “silent recall” figured prominently. The jury awarded several million dollars, much of it seemingly incurred because of the cover-up rather than the defect itself.

Incredibly some four years later, one million plastic-hub cutting attachments were recalled due to the same risk of injury. The Consumer Product Safety Commission received 16 reports of broken blades and 12 injuries.

Other blade designs, unfortunately, have proved neither safer nor more reliable. Perhaps the saddest weed whacker case I have ever reviewed occurred in 1997. A homeowner was edging his driveway with a product that used a cutting element similar to a bicycle chain while his 3 year old granddaughter played in the yard. Suddenly and without warning, the last link of the cutting chain detached and flew across the driveway, lodging in the little girl’s head. She died soon afterward from a brain injury.

Sadly, the hazards of the bicycle chain weed whacker were well known long before this accident occurred. The Australian Ministry for Employment, Training and Industrial Relations had banned sales of this design years earlier. Calling it the “lethal weed cutter,” they issued a safety alert to home gardeners. Based on a study by a major Australian university, the Government reported that wear between joints of the chain could be “quite rapid” and that “in the event of failure, whole links, or parts of a link, are released at high speed and become lethal projectiles.” Within the U.S., testimony by the office manager for the U.S. distributor indicated that her company was aware of at least 9 serious injuries caused by their product as well as additional incidents of broken chains.

No report was made to the CPSC under Section 15 of the Consumer Product Safety Act or the regulations at 16 CFR 1115, which together require notification to the Commission upon obtaining information that reasonably leads to the conclusion that a product either (1) contains a defect which could create a substantial product hazard or (2) presents an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death. Such a report in a timely manner could have substantially reduced the risk of injury to consumers and potentially saved the little girl’s life.

Three years after that fatal injury, 3 million of these bicycle chain style weed whackers and replacement chain sets were recalled in the U.S. The Consumer Product Safety Commission alleged that the companies that sold this product were aware of at least 19 injury incidents.

Recently, a high six figure civil penalty was paid for failing to report to the Commission under Section 15. Hal Stratton, the new CPSC Chairman, said “Companies that ignore our reporting requirement will be penalized - there should be no doubt that companies need to report to the Commission when their product has the potential to kill or severely injure consumers and children.”

This is not to say that one cannot make a reasonably safe metal bladed weed whacker, but it requires dedication to hazard identification, risk assessment, product testing, and adequate warnings to consumers about the danger. It further requires addressing recall responsibilities in a timely manner, a theme that, unfortunately, we will assess many times in the future of this column.