Portable Generator Manufacturers Know They Could Make Their Products Safer but Many Don’t
September 30, 2022
Last September, a mother and her two sons died from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning inside their home after their portable generator’s shut-off switch seemingly failed to activate. The generator was on the family’s porch instead of being a minimum of 20 feet away from the home, but the unit was also equipped with a supposedly life-saving safety feature. Although the new generator touted the safety mechanism that manufacturers have hailed as preventing as many as 99% of carbon monoxide poisoning-related deaths that result from “misuse,” it did not save this mother and her children.
Portable generators are one of the most dangerous consumer products on the market. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), approximately 85 consumers in the U.S. die every year from CO poisoning caused by gasoline-powered portable generators. The agency reports that portable generators pose many different hazards, such as:
- Carbon monoxide poisoning from toxic exhaust fumes
- Electrical shock or electrocution
A generator produces a high level of carbon monoxide in just minutes. You cannot see or smell CO, so people who are suffering from a potentially fatal level of exposure often have no idea that they are in danger. Shut-off sensors on portable generators are supposed to sense when the carbon monoxide level becomes hazardous and turn off power to deactivate the machine. Although the police who investigated the death of the family were not able to determine conclusively whether the generator’s switch had been activated at any point during the night, they did note that when emergency medical personnel found the family the following morning that the generator was powered up and the fuel tank was empty.
To date, the CPSC has not made it a federal safety requirement that manufacturers must equip portable generators with automatic shut-off switches, despite the wealth of data showing that this technology could – and has – saved lives. Instead, manufacturers merely have the option of installing a shut-off switch, which means that many opt against providing the safety feature altogether. Meanwhile, some of others who do, like the maker of the family’s portable generator model, may still produce units with shut-off mechanisms that do not work well or reliably enough to actually save anyone’s life.
The Portable Generator Manufacturers Association, or PGMA, has consistently pushed for requiring automatic shut-off sensors, and the group’s technical director says they stand by their previous claims. Instead of having a voluntary standard that allows manufacturers to decide whether or not to produce gasoline-powered generators with shut-off switches on their own, a mandatory federal safety standard would require them to install the switches, ensuring that their products become safer for consumers to use. It would also lend the federal government more oversight into regulating portable generators and would allow the agency — and even more importantly victims, like thousands of injured consumers and their grieving friends and loved ones – to seek justice against manufacturers who fail to follow the law or cause preventable injuries and damages by producing and distributing unsafe products.
Another major factor to consider is that more people use portable generators in the wake of severe storms and extreme weather. In recent years, climate change has made weather conditions like these more and more commonplace, and experts say it is a trend that is not only likely to continue but also to worsen. Until lawmakers take heed to the pleas from federal officials and safety advocates who have long-warned about the dangers of failing to require automatic shut-off switches on portable generators, consumers will continue to face unnecessary and substantial risks associated with using the equipment. Although there is much left for manufacturers to do in order to protect consumers, the CPSC does offer the following tips for consumers who plan to use portable generators:
- Never operate a portable generator inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace, shed or on the porch. Opening doors or windows will not provide enough airflow and ventilation to prevent the buildup of lethal levels of carbon monoxide
- Operate portable generators outside only, at least 20 feet away from the house, and direct the generator’s exhaust away from the home or any other buildings that someone could enter, while keeping windows and other openings closed in the exhaust path of the generator
- Check that portable generators have had proper maintenance, and read and follow the labels, instructions, and warnings on the generator and in the owner’s manual
- Look for portable generators that shut off automatically when high levels of carbon monoxide are present. Some models with automatic shut-off systems also have reduced emissions
- Be sure to install battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms or CO alarms with battery backup on each level of the home and outside of every sleeping area. You should also install smoke alarms on every level and inside of each bedroom in the home
- Test your carbon monoxide and smoke alarms monthly to make sure they are working properly. If you need to, replace the batteries. Never ignore an alarm if it sounds; get outside immediately and call 9-1-1
With nearly 100 deaths and thousands of injuries every year, it is clear that portable generator manufacturers are not doing enough to keep consumers safe. The reality is, manufacturers, suppliers and sellers are each equally legally obligated to produce and sell safe products, and portable generators are certainly no exception to the rule. Just like a seat belt is designed to protect vehicle occupants from being thrown from the vehicle and to distribute crash force across the stronger parts of a person’s body, automatic shut-off switches on portable generators are meant to do just that: shut the machine off when it detects a dangerous level of carbon monoxide. If you or one of your loved ones sustained injuries after using a portable generator that resulted from an unsafe design, a manufacturing defect, malfunction, or the failure to provide proper warnings or instructions, someone at our firm can help. If you would like to learn more about filing a products liability claim, contact a representative online now.
Philadelphia Products Liability Lawyers at Galfand Berger, LLP, Representing Injured Victims Since 1947
If you have a question about filing a legal claim, contact the Philadelphia products liability lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP today. Call us at 800-222-USWA (8792) or fill out our online form for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, we serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Allentown and Harrisburg.