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Do No Harm: The intersection of CSR and children

Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012

This is the final post in a three-part series about Corporate Social Responsibility and children’s rights based on the Children’s Rights and Business Principles.

Child labour isn't the only way that businesses can harm children. There are many ways that businesses can harm children without even realizing they are doing it. Often it comes from exposure to products and services that were not designed with children in mind. But just because a product isn't designed specifically for children doesn't mean that corporations shouldn't consider their impact on the youngest members of our society.

Take vehicles for example. Children don't buy them and they don't drive them (at least not until they are well on their way to adulthood). Yet one of the biggest physical dangers to children comes from motor vehicles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 3 to 14 and many more are seriously injured despite advances in car safety. Why? Because cars are primarily designed for adults as are the safety systems within them. Air bags kill kids so they sit in the back. But rear seats have not received as much safety focus as the front seats of vehicles and restraint systems are still designed largely for adults. Fortunately, some automotive companies are working to make vehicles safer for children.

Preventing Harm

Ford Motor Company is developing one of the first digital child models for virtual crash test research to help make cars safer for children. The company recognizes that children's bodies are different from adults and are researching how to make vehicle restraint systems more effective. The digital child model, which follows the successful creation of a digital adult model, allows the company to run hundreds of virtual crash simulations and assess how crash forces affect children and adults differently.

Their digital adult model was 11 years in the making. Like with the adult version, the digital child model is created part by part using child MRI scans and CT scans and then the parts are joined to make a virtual human child body. Research using the models improves understanding of how injuries occur which lead to improved restraint systems that can then undergo physical tests with crash test dummies.

Ford has also been a pioneer in crash test technology. In conjunction with Dearborn-based STR Systems, a safety technology and research firm; The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; Wayne State University in Detroit; the University of Virginia; and Takata Corporation, a global manufacturer of automotive safety systems, Ford has also developed a more life-like pediatric crash test dummy that better reflects a young child's body. The new dummy addresses abdominal injuries, an area that has been neglected in the past.

Once child passengers graduate to young drivers, Ford is still committed to keeping them safe. The MyKey® system is a standard feature on most of the company's models and allows parents to limit the speed their teens can drive and set the maximum audio level on the vehicle's stereo. The system has a more insistent safety-belt reminder that also mutes the stereo until the safety belt is buckled. These are all features that can help keep young drivers safe on the road.

Enabling Harm

In another industry, there's a very different picture of manufacturer response to potential harm to children. In 2011, the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (EMF) emitted by mobile phones as possibly carcinogenic to humans. They are popular devices among adolescents: 90% of teens aged 14-17 and 60% of 12-13 year olds have mobile phones (and younger children often use their parents' mobile phones). Given their popularity among young people, the WHO recommends further research into the effect radiofrequency electromagnetic fields have on them.

The FDA has urged the cell phone industry to take steps to mitigate the risk of EMF exposure by supporting research, improving design to minimize radiofrequency exposure to users, and provide users the latest scientific information.

I had hoped to share with you a similar story like Ford from the mobile phone industry, one which highlights the positive steps manufacturers are taking to mitigate these risks, particularly with children. The problem is I couldn't find any. If there are manufacturers using innovative technology to address the dangers children face due to exposure to and use of their products, they are being very quiet about it.

And despite the FDA's exhortation, several company websites refer to an outdated WHO report from 2006 which suggests mobile phone use is safe. At the same time, those same companies advise their consumers to hold their phones away from their body or head during use to limit exposure. They have removed themselves from responsibility and have placed the onus squarely on their consumers to limit use and protect themselves from potential harm.

While manufacturers appear to be trying to sweep responsibility for this issue aside, several independent studies investigating potential health effects in children and adolescents are underway. One, a five-year study on the brain cancer risks of radiofrequency exposure in children will be complete next year. Mobile device manufacturers should take note.

Better Design for the Future

The recently released Children's Rights and Business Principles states that businesses should ensure that "products and services for children or to which children may be exposed are safe and do not cause mental, moral or physical harm". When that harm is preventable by better design, corporations do have an obligation to find innovative solutions.

Children are the future of business. They are current and future consumers. They are our future employees, managers and CEOs. They are key stakeholders of business and it's time we treat them that way. Better design for children will mean a better future for us all.

Images from Flickr user CxOxS



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