The head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission told Congress last week that her agency is working to improve the safety of football helmets, as head injuries come under increasing scrutiny from the National Football League to youth football.
The commission “is committed to working within the standards development community to improve helmet safety standards and testing,” Inez Tenenbaum told a Senate panel. She said that her staff has already contacted the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or NOCSAE, the nonprofit corporation that sets the standards.
The commission staff will be joining NOCSAE’s standards development process next month “in order to monitor and help accelerate their efforts to update the appropriate standards,” Tenenbaum said.
NOCSAE was created in 1969 “in response to a need for a performance test standard for football helmets,” according to its website, and the testing method established for helmets in the 1970s remains essentially the same today.
The original goal was to prevent sudden death, skull fractures and brain bleeding in football, and that goal has been achieved. But NOCSAE says it would like to find a way to update the standard and testing to better account for concussions. Today, no helmets in use can eliminate concussions.
In a telephone interview, the group’s executive director, Mike Oliver, said he welcomed the help from the commission.
“We’ve never turned down an opportunity to get input from anybody who has the resources and qualifications,” he said. Oliver added that NOCSAE has been working since at least 2002 to try to see if there is a standard change that can be made to address concussions.
Helmets used in the NFL, NCAA and high school football are supposed to pass a test developed by NOCSAE. The group’s website says it establishes “voluntary test standards,” that “manufacturers test their own helmets” and that “NOCSAE does not possess a surveillance force to ensure compliance with the standards.”
The NFL had acknowledged that the lack of a perfect helmet contributed to its decision to use big fines and the threat of suspensions to cut down on dangerous hits.
Tenenbaum made her comments at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, responding to a question from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.. He had asked the commission earlier this week to investigate whether safety standards for football helmets are adequate to protect players from concussions and other head injuries.
Tenenbaum said she comes from a family of football players, and she even has pictures of her father playing in a leather helmet.
“I will use the bully-pulpit as chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and we will do all that we can to make sure that the standards-making organization is looking at all of the best engineering and science,” she said. “I’m very concerned as you are about the safety of people and the number of concussions.”
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