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Friday, April 19, 2024

Peloton Recalls Treadmills After Injuries and a Child Death

Peloton Interactive, the cultish fitness company that sells internet-connected exercise bikes and treadmills, has recalled more than 125,000 treadmills and paused sales of the equipment after the machines were linked to the death of a child and dozens of other injuries. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission also announced a separate recall of the Peloton Tread and Tread+ treadmills and urged people to stop using the treadmills immediately.

Peloton’s voluntary recall comes nearly three weeks after the CPSC initially warned consumers about the potential risk of injury or death from the treadmills, and more than a month after Peloton first shared that it had become aware that a child had died in an accident involving one of the treadmills. Peloton’s chief executive, John Foley, apologized today for his earlier insistence that the company would not recall the treadmill—a reaction that had befuddled some people who work in or closely follow the connected-fitness industry.

“Peloton made a mistake in our initial response to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s request that we recall the Tread+,” Foley said today in a statement. “We should have engaged more productively with them from the outset. For that, I apologize.”

Before Peloton’s safety hazards were made known to the public in March, the company had been considered one of the home-fitness success stories of the pandemic. The company’s sales surged in 2020, despite the notoriously long wait times for deliveries of newly ordered exercise bikes and treadmills. Peloton claims more than 1.7 million members have either bought into the company’s pricey home equipment, paying a monthly fee of $39 for access to video classes, or pay $12 per month for mobile-only access to fitness classes. But shares of publicly-traded Peloton stock sank after the joint recalls were announced this morning.

Ultimately, the design of Peloton treadmills—particularly the Tread+, which uses slat-belt technology and leaves a gap between the moving belt and the floor below it—is central to the CPSC’s technical investigation, leaving questions about how Peloton might address the design concerns in future iterations of products.

First Step

Peloton revealed its first treadmill, called Peloton Tread, in January 2018 at CES in Las Vegas. It started shipping that fall. The treadmill was notable for its size. (Even Foley said at the time the Tread wouldn’t fit in his apartment, so it would have to go in his summer home.) It had a large touchscreen (32 inches) and an even larger price tag: $4,295. Eventually, Peloton would release a less expensive treadmill for $2,495 and name that product the Peloton Tread, while the more expensive model was renamed the Peloton Tread+.

The price tags weren’t the only difference between the two models. The less expensive Peloton Tread had a smaller touchscreen, measuring 23.8 inches diagonally. It also had a more traditional conveyor belt design, featuring a continuous 60-inch belt made of woven nylon and lightweight plastic.

The Tread+, on the other hand, used slat-belt technology—a series of rubberized panels or slats that move on a ball-bearing system. These types of treadmills are generally considered more shock absorptive—Peloton marketed its higher-end treadmill as “made for the ultimate low-impact and comfortable running experience”—and therefore are often priced at a premium. Woodway treadmills, which have been around since the 1970’s, are best known for this technology. Some of the brand’s slat-belt machines are priced around $10,000, and are mostly sold to gyms, fitness studios, and professional athletes.

Both Peloton Tread and Tread+ ended up being recalled Wednesday for safety issues, but for different reasons. According to the CPSC, the potential hazard with the smaller Tread is that the treadmill’s touchscreen can potentially become detached and fall. The safety commission says it’s aware of 18 incidents of the screen becoming loose or detached.


The concern with the larger Tread+ is much greater: The CPSC notes that a 6-year-old child recently died after being pulled under the rear of the treadmill, and that Peloton has received “72 reports of adult users, children, pets and/or objects being pulled under the rear of the treadmill, including 29 reports of injuries to children such as second- and third-degree abrasions, broken bones, and lacerations.” A disturbing video shared by the CPSC shows a toddler being sucked under the Tread+ as the child approaches it with a ball in hand. (The end of the video clip shows the child managing to get free and walk away from the equipment.)

“We’ve received reports of child injuries involving treadmills before, but a lot of them have to do with acceleration. This is different,” Joe Martyak, director of communications for the CPSC, tells WIRED. “I want to emphasize that our technical evaluations are continuing, but some of the factors that appear is that there is a unique slatted belt, a lack of a guard at the rear, and a large clearance underneath the treadmill.”

Peloton declined to comment when asked about specific design elements of its Tread+ treadmill, instead pointing us to the FAQ posted on its website, which includes this statement: "We are working to develop additional modifications to the recalled Tread+ that will address the hazard of adult users, children, and pets being pulled below the Treadmill and suffering serious injury or death."

The company also said it will offer full refunds to any Tread or Tread+ customers who request one. And it has offered to move the treadmills to another (presumably safer) place in customers’ homes, free of charge.

Serious injuries, and sometimes recalls, are not uncommon in this product category. The CPSC told The Washington Post that there were 22,500 treadmill-related injuries treated in the US in 2019, and that it received reports of 17 deaths involving treadmills between 2018 and 2020. According to the agency’s website, over the past decade there have been recalls of StairMasters, elliptical machines, weight racks, pull-up bars, and ab straps for pull-up bars. One such recall was of a Schwinn-branded elliptical machine made by Nautilus, a global fitness equipment manufacturer. In that case, though, there were just nine reports of foot plates becoming detached, and the most severe injury documented was a hurt knee.

“I think there are a couple reasons why the Peloton incidents are getting this attention,” says Ray Maker, the author of the popular fitness blog DC Rainmaker, where he writes extensively about technology products for runners, cyclists, and triathletes. “The death of a child likely catapulted this higher into the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s purview, compared to other injury-type scenarios.”

“But also, I think it’s the sheer numbers being recalled and the size of the company,” Maker continued. “If you look at most treadmill manufacturers today, most are owned by larger conglomerates and they have a bunch of different model numbers, so it’s harder to latch onto one particular model. Peloton only has two models, and they’ve effectively all been recalled.”

Maker, who says he has run on an uncountable number of treadmills, also noted that while other treadmills may be susceptible to the same problem as the Peloton Tread+, some manufacturers have installed low-lying bars along the back of their treads. These, in theory, are supposed to prevent children, pets, or objects from being caught underneath.

Jeff Douse, who used to run a Houston-based running program and boutique running studio called RacePace, had at one point invested in 25 Woodway 4Front treadmills for his gym because the slat-belt treads offered better shock absorption for runners. But the inherent risk with any slat-belt treadmill, Douse says, is that “as those slates come towards the end of the treadmill and rotate around and go underneath, the slats actually start to separate and create gaps, where someone could probably stick a finger.”

The clearance height, or distance from the bottom of the treadmill to the floor, is also a consideration, Douse says. The Woodways he purchased, at $10,000 a pop, were low enough to the floor that anyone tasked with cleaning the floor below the machine struggled to reach underneath it. The Peloton Tread+ appears to have more clearance space, Douse says, with wheels on the front of the treadmill and adjustable levels on the back—which means it might be relatively easy to reach under, but could create “potential areas of vulnerability.”

On Guard

It’s unclear at this point what Peloton’s next move will be. The company says it's working on modifications to the recalled treadmills, but those designs will have to be presented to and approved by the CPSC before Peloton can resume sales.

Maker, the fitness blogger, suggests that Peloton could explore a software fix to correct the issue, in addition to considering a physical redesign to the machine or adding a safety guard. A software-based lock, one with a PIN code, could work in situations where an adult has to temporarily hop off the treadmill but forgets to pull the physical key card to stop the belt. The belt would auto-lock, and it would require the adult to enter a PIN before resuming the activity. “Sort of like the way your phone auto-locks,” Maker says.

But even if Peloton manages to fix its treadmill problem, its image as a high-flying fitness company that dug in its heels on a safety recall following the death of a child might be harder to repair.

“I see both sides of it, in the sense that Peloton said it designed a treadmill for people aged 16 and older, and people do get hurt on treadmills, and all that is true,” says Douse. “But the fact is that these things are in living rooms and bedrooms and playrooms, and Peloton also designed a treadmill that’s going to have some risks around it, and so maybe there are things they should be doing that the typical treadmill manufacturer doesn’t do.”

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