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Peloton fights federal safety recall after its treadmills left one child dead, others injured

A Peloton Interactive Inc. Tread exercise machine for sale at the company's showroom in Dedham, Massachusetts, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.
A Peloton Interactive Inc. Tread exercise machine for sale at the company's showroom in Dedham, Massachusetts, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg

One month after revealing that one child died and others were injured in accidents on Peloton treadmills, the at-home exercise company is fighting a federal safety agency’s request that the company recall the products and has delayed the agency’s investigation into potential safety problems, according to officials familiar with the incident.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission this week took the unusual step of issuing an administrative subpoena to require Peloton to disclose the name of the child who died and the family’s contact information so regulators can continue an inquiry into what went wrong, according to officials who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

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The previously undisclosed dispute between the nation's product safety regulator and Peloton - a $34 billion company famous for its stationary bicycles and online workouts - has so far taken place outside public view.

The two sides also are clashing over whether Peloton's treadmills need to be taken off the market. The company and regulators have been negotiating this week over the wording and timing of an agency warning to alert consumers to potential dangers posed by the company's Peloton Tread+ - a $4,300 exercise machine, these officials said. A new safety warning from the CPSC is expected to be posted as early as Saturday, officials said.

"This doesn't happen with other treadmills," said an official familiar with the case, explaining why the CPSC was alarmed by reports of victims being pulled under the machines and suffering injuries that included broken bones and head trauma. "It is a different hazard pattern than is typically seen."

A Peloton spokeswoman said in a statement to The Washington Post that the company "does not believe a recall is necessary" and the treadmill "is safe for use when the warnings and safety instructions we provide are followed." Peloton also has issued repeated safety warnings to its customers since it learned of the incidents last month, company spokeswoman Jessica Kleiman said.

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"Peloton is still seeking to jointly work with CPSC to urge (its customers) to follow all warnings and safety instructions," Kleiman said in the statement.

The company also said it did not give the agency personal information about the deceased child because the company respects its customers' privacy and the child's family "asked us not to provide the information to the CPSC." Peloton asked for a subpoena, the company said.

The CPSC's actions represent a stand by a small federal agency that has been criticized in the past for being too slow to respond to product dangers and too accommodating of companies seeking to curtail the agency's regulatory powers.

The case also illustrates how companies can be frustrated by disagreement with regulators over how to best address product safety issues.

While the CPSC appears to be blaming the accidents on the treadmill - a problem with its design or how it is commonly used - Peloton argues that improper use is the culprit. Kleiman pointed out that the treadmill is designed to be used by people older than 16 and it is important for customers to keep "children, pets and objects clear of the Tread+ at all times."

A CPSC spokesman declined to comment.

The first public hint of a problem with Peloton's treadmills came from a March 18 letter posted on the company's website from CEO and co-founder John Foley. In the letter, Foley said he had recently learned about a child's death and "a small handful of incidents" where other children were hurt by the company's treadmill. The letter asked consumers to always keep children and pets away from Peloton equipment.

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Peloton already had notified the CPSC of the fatality, as required by law, both sides said.

But the agency discovered that there were actually "dozens" of incidents involving Peloton's treadmills, some involving pets or exercise balls and many of them resulting in serious injuries - leading the agency to see this as a much larger and potentially more dangerous problem than previously believed, according to sources.

Peloton said it received new reports of accidents after the March 18 letter, leading to the higher numbers.

The number of accidents and the severity of the injuries led CPSC staff to recommend that Peloton should conduct a product safety recall, according to officials.

The CPSC needs a company's cooperation to recall a product. Almost all recalls are voluntary, except in rare cases where the agency sues to force the issue.

Peloton said in its statement it doesn't believe a recall is needed. The company said it issues regular safety warnings to its treadmill users with messages from its online exercise instructors and emails to customers.

The CPSC is mostly powerless to warn consumers about products it believes are unsafe until a company has been given chances - and time - to respond and suggest changes about what is revealed. The agency had hoped to publish its safety warning about Peloton's Tread+ machines earlier this week, but faced objections from Peloton over wording, according to sources. Now it appears a public warning will be released Saturday, officials said.

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Most of the Peloton accidents involved young children getting pulled under the heavy treadmills, including a case where a child suffered multiple broken bones, a source said.

In another case, the only one previously disclosed in a public database of injury reports, a three-year-old boy was found trapped under a Peloton Tread+ by his father in February. The boy was not breathing and had no pulse andsurvived with significant brain injuries, the report said.

After Peloton provided information about the accidents to the CPSC, the agency asked for Peloton's help as it launched a safety investigation, sources said. But the company's privacy claims delayed the agency's ability to take action, according to officials.

The CPSC then took the unusual step of seeking a subpoena compelling Peloton to provide the victim's contact information.

Now, Peloton and the CPSC are fighting over what the agency should tell the public about the potential dangers, according to officials.

The dispute has also attracted the attention of Congress. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who chairs a House subcommittee overseeing the agency, has asked for more details about the status of the case.

The potential for children to get hurt using home treadmills is well known.

A 2007 article in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery called it "a public health issue." A 2020 article in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine warned the risk would grow as more people set up home gyms during the pandemic.

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There were an estimated 22,500 treadmill-related injuries treated at U.S. emergency departments in 2019 - including about 2,000 in children under 8 years old, according to the CPSC. The agency received reports of 17 deaths associated with treadmills from 2018 to 2020. One of those fatalities involved a 5-year-old child, but it was not clear what occurred in that case.

Peloton's treadmill was introduced in 2018, joining the company's line of popular stationary bicycles. The company exploded in popularity during the pandemic as gyms closed and more people worked out at home.

Its line of high-end workout equipment allows people to participate in online workout classes. The public company reported in February that it had nearly 1.7 million monthly subscribers paying for its online classes.

The company has worked with the CPSC previously. Last October, Peloton agreed to recall the pedals on certain stationary bike models because they could break apart. A voluntary recall announcement from the CPSC noted the company had received 120 reports of problems, including 16 reports of leg injuries.

In recent years, the CPSC has at times struggled to take aggressive action when its staff believes products are killing or injuring children. The agency has been sometimes hamstrung by political divisions among the commissioners who oversee the agency. Currently, the commission is split between two Republicans and two Democrats. A tiebreaking fifth seat remains unfilled.

In 2019, the agency convinced Fisher-Price to agree to recall its Rock 'n Play inclined infant sleeper following reports of dozens of deaths tied to the product. A Washington Post investigation detailed how Fisher-Price invented the class of products without medical safety testing or input from a pediatrician.

The CPSC also sued Britax Child Safety in 2018 after the company refused to recall its popular BOB jogging strollers. The agency said a product defect allowed the front wheel to fly off the strollers, resulting in hundreds of crashes and injuries. Britax argued the strollers were safe when used as instructed.

In a settlement, Britax offered to fix BOB strollers for thousands of customers if the effort was not categorized as a traditional agency recall.

But the next year, when it was discovered that Britax used defective bolts to fix some strollers, the company agreed to issue a recall.