True Confessions Of A Compliance Officer


What is a compliance officer? I thought I knew the answer when this job was thrown in my lap roughly three years ago. Since then, I’ve learned not to quickly tag anyone with that title, although, with time, one can comfortably use the term “compliance officer-in-training.”

With the myriad risks, hazards and increasing regulations present in business today, it may be prudent for someone possessing this title to consider going back to school for degrees in engineering, law and biochemistry. However, the reality is that most compliance officers have never even considered the career path on which they are now embarking. With limited experience in the field and backgrounds from other business segments, today’s compliance officers are generally thrust into the role with little or no training and even less direction.

In this new and emerging business segment, funds are limited and return on investment is difficult to prove unless a business undergoes an investigation by regulators or has to defend itself in a lawsuit. The newly appointed compliance officer must quickly get up to speed in federal and state product safety laws, testing methods, social and environmental best practices, and the emerging risks of technological product hazards. Who would have thought that knowing what types of batteries are used in electronics would be a prerequisite for employment in the promotional products industry? But, with today’s focus on corporate responsibility, businesses are expected to know how many trees need to be planted in order to replenish what was used to produce their products while also ensuring the ethical treatment of workers by their business partners.

What Makes Me A Compliance Officer?

So, what is a compliance officer-in-training? We are not all experienced industry veterans, nor do we all have a vast knowledge of how products are produced, tested, brought to market or potentially used. Until recently, I’m pretty sure some of us never heard of phthalates and didn’t know they are used to soften plastics.

At my first product safety workshop attended by company compliance officers, vice chairs, chief and senior counsel, and engineers, I was handed materials on ISO 31000 Risk Management and took notes on crisis preparedness and the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Hold on! Did I list myself as “compliance officer” in the list of attendees?

The Reality

I had not heard the word “substrate” until I was in the middle of a product safety basics webinar. While “surface coating” may be self-explanatory, substrate is not. I quickly Googled “substrates” and got the gist after scanning the previews in the list of pages: “natural stone, masonry surface,” “enzyme substrate,” “a nutrient-rich economy,” “the base on which an organism lives,” “a substance on which an enzyme acts.” I thought to myself, “Now we’re getting somewhere.” It was then easier to learn that substrate in the context of my job is defined as the base material of a product that will be decorated.

Add to that the fact that suddenly all my packing materials—individual product bags, boxes, carton inks, staples, straps, glue—must be compliant with Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) guidelines. Does this ever end? The answer to this rhetorical question is a resounding “No!”

I’ve also learned that compliance risk doesn’t stop with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). There are other acts under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in addition to many other federal agencies that regulate products, how they enter the market and how they are positioned. Here’s a partial list:

  • Food & Drug Administration (FDA)―particularly drinkware, sunscreen, food and beverages, food contact items, cosmetics, health and beauty aids
  • Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA)―batteries
  • Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA)―clothing textiles, children’s sleepwear, vinyl plastic film
  • Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA)―any consumer product
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)―lithium batteries
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—regulates the validity of marketing statements and claims

Just when I thought I had it all figured out or at least somewhat under control, I found that several individual states have their own versions of product safety laws. With a little more research I began to think there was daylight ahead as I latched onto the word “preemption.” Preemption in this case refers to a federal law that supersedes a state law when the state law conflicts with the federal law. Therefore, if covered by a federal regulation (laws enacted by the CPSA, FHSA and FFA, for example), the state or local law is essentially preempted. That’s the answer I was looking for—all I really needed to worry about was federal law. Wrong! As I continued to listen during this into-the-fire compliance officer training, I found that preemption does not apply to several states’ laws, most notably California Proposition 65.

The more I learned, the more I realized how convoluted this was becoming. To my dismay, I found that preemption does not apply to labeling or reporting laws. What is a compliance officer to do? How could I possibly understand or manage all of this information? I’m not even going to mention international regulations (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals—REACH; and Canada Consumer Product Safety Act—CCPSA, for example), as those are entirely separate animals that I will work to tame in due time.

How I Have Evolved

So where does that leave me? I am told my company’s products have to be compliant and that it is not an option. If the products are not compliant then no one will buy them and hefty penalties could be levied against my company. As you have probably determined by now, none of this is linear learning, which is how my brain usually works to comprehend the big picture. Instead, it’s scattered in every ring-around-the-rosy direction it can possibly go.

At the very beginning of my new compliance officer career, before I realized how little I knew, I thought that an undecorated pencil sharpener would be classified as a general use item and not a children’s product. Great! I figured the only testing required would be for lead in the blade. But as a rookie, I reached out to an expert for confirmation. What I received was an email response that printed as three 8-1/2 x 11 pages on what testing could be required for a pencil sharpener. I went with the first sentence that said, “It seems that you are correct …” and ignored the rest. I thought it was a copy-and-paste response but not unless our government has a program that knows where to place the word “lead” and make each paragraph relevant to my question. The simple answer to what testing is required on a pencil sharpener goes something like this:

  1. Who is the target audience?
  2. Who’s going to use it?
  3. Where is it going to be used?
  4. What kind of logo will be used?
  5. How will it be distributed?

Now, when I listen in on the product safety webinars, instead of Googling for answers and missing part of the presentation, I jot down a quick note when I have a question because they take questions and provide answers at the end. I no longer worry that I may be wasting anyone’s time with a “this-person-doesn’t-know-anything” question. I figure at least a quarter of participants don’t know the answer either. And if they do, the questions are anonymous so I won’t feel foolish.

It’s been three years now since people started referring to me as our company’s compliance expert. Well, at least, I now can answer a few questions on my own and I know where to turn to try and find the answer. So, I’ll settle for quasi-expert.

If you are in my shoes, your best bet to work your way through this, without pulling out your last two strands of hair or grinding down your four back teeth, is to align with other industry professionals. Join industry associations such as PPAI. Consider partnering with a testing facility. If at all possible, work with a compliance organization to build safety, social and security policies and practices into your daily operations, then steadily educate your organization so that, over time, it will become part of your company’s culture.

The wealth of material available through trade associations and other organizations is invaluable. If you’re associated with them, you have access to the knowledge their experts can provide. You can also contact them when, despite your exhaustive efforts, you can’t pin down the exact answer you’re looking for. Chances are they will answer you in a timely manner and with a reply that’s fewer than three pages.

Seriously, my advice is to sit through every seminar and workshop you can, listen in on every live and archived webinar, and revisit them again as a refresher. Make cheat sheets for yourself (when is the last time you used that phrase?), sign up for every relevant newsletter and email blast you can, and do as much research as possible. And one more last bit of advice: Ignore the fact that those other job responsibilities you had before you became a compliance officer are still on your to-do list.

Peggie Jewell is compliance officer for Cherry Hill, New Jersey, business services company Impex International, Inc.





>To-Do List
June 2015

  1. Check out PPAI’s TurboTest. It’s a free online tool for PPAI members that will guide me through product safety testing requirements. Note to self: Double check that my company is a PPAI member.
  2. Register for this year’s PPAI Product Responsibility Summit, September 28-30, in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s what I need to know to navigate this new role.
  3. Set aside some time each day to read and research. There are dozens of guides, best practices and articles on PPAI’s website at
  4. Schedule time to watch some of the live and on-demand product safety webinars available from PPAI under the Education/e-Learning tab at They are free!
  5. Order a copy of Sourcing & Compliance Manual for the Promotional Products Industry. It will help me develop my company’s corporate responsibility and sourcing best practices. (Find it at

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