Product Safety

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Product Safety is a key issue for UK business. Tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower have highlighted the terrible potential consequences of product safety failures.

However, away from the headlines, the figures on product safety failures are still quite dramatic:

  • In 2014/15 there were 31,300 electrical fires according to the Home Office of which 36% were due to faulty appliances and leads
  • Which? have concluded that malfunctioning kitchen appliances have accounted for nearly 16,000 fires across the UK since 2012. It said faulty washing machines and tumble dryers accounted for 35% of fires, followed by cookers and ovens (11%), dishwashers (10%), and fridges, freezers and fridge freezers (8%).
  • Firefighters deal with three tumble dryer fires a day and at least one white goods fire a day in London alone, according to the Local Government Association in 2018
  • Each day around 40 under-5s are rushed to hospital after choking on something, or swallowing something dangerous
  • There have been at least 14 deaths across the UK due to looped cords since the start of to busi 2010, according to ROSPA

Implications for businesses

Business have a legal responsibility to ensure that the products they supply are safe under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 and additional regulations that apply to specific product types.

Failure to do so can result in prosecution leading to significant penalties, but the wider harm to reputation and costs of remedial action are likely to be more severe, and have been known to lead to business closures.

Regulation 10(5) states that:

‘An enforcement authority shall in enforcing these Regulations act in a manner proportionate to the seriousness of the risk and shall take due account of the precautionary principle. In this context, it shall encourage and promote voluntary action by producers and distributors. Notwithstanding the foregoing, an enforcement authority may take any action under these Regulations urgently and without first encouraging and promoting voluntary action if a product poses a serious risk.’

How things can go wrong

Case Study 1
A small cosmetics company managed to get their product into Boots. All went well and sales were good until customers started reporting skin irritations. Boots reported the problem to the manufacturer, who were able to trace the problem to a contaminated ingredient. However, they were not able to determine which batches of product were affected.

As a consequence, Boots were forced to issue a full recall for the product. They were able to trace 80% of customers through their loyalty card scheme, and contacted all customers asking them to dispose of the affected products and offering them a full refund.

The manufacturer did not receive payment from Boots for any of the recalled product, and was not able to win any large contracts following the incident, and the company folded within 2 years. No further action was taken by the regulators.

Case Study 2
In 2010, a number of large furniture retailers were required to pay out up to £20m to customers who were injured after buying sofas which contained harmful chemicals.

Following an agreement in the High Court in 2010, victims of the so-called ‘toxic sofas’ manufactured in China received payouts of between £1,175 and £9,000. The victims suffered chemical burns, severe skin and eye complaints and other medical complications after exposure to the chemical DMF – dimethyl fumarate – in leather sofas made by Chinese firms Linkwise and Eurosofa.

Lawyers for the victims launched a group action against the three major retailers of the affected sofas – Argos, Land of Leather and Walmsleys – all of whom admitted liability. The legal action is believed to be the largest consumer group litigation in UK legal history.

The chemical was used because the sofas were manufacture in an area of high humidity. The problem was exacerbated because at first the source of the problem could not be identified. Further, people feeling sick from the exposure then tended to lie down on the affected sofas increasing their symptoms.

Case Study 3
In 2017, a market trader saw an opportunity to import 500 hoverboards direct from China. He received a letter to say that the products were being held at the docks because the local Trading Standards team believed them to unsafe. When he sent in the technical information he had received from the manufacturer, the Trading Standards evaluated it but ruled that it did not meet UK requirements.

There had been international concern over hoverboards. In 2016, after nearly 100 reported exploding hoverboard incidents had caused an estimated $2 million in property damage around the U.S., the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission launched an official recall of 501,000 Hoverboards.

Hoverboard manufacturer Swagway comprised the largest of the recalls, with over 267,000 of Swagway’s X1 model recalled. Other models of the “self-balancing scooters” recalled include Digital Gadgets’ Hover-Way, Hoverboard’s Powerboard, Hype Wireless’ Hype Roam, Keenford’s iMoto, the Airwalk Self Balancing Electric Scooter, Razor’s Hovertrax and multiple models of Yuka Clothing: the Wheeli, 2Wheelz, Back to the Future, Mobile Tech, Hover Shark, NWS, X Glider and X Rider.

No matter the make or model, all hoverboards were recalled for the same potential hazard: the lithium-ion batteries used in the boards have been reported to overheat or catch fire. Even the New York City metro has condemned hoverboards as fire hazards, plastering posters in the subway prohibiting their presence.

The market traders stock was confiscated and destroyed.

What can companies to prevent such incidents or manage them effectively if they happen?

The government’s new Office for Product Safety and Standards has teamed up with BSI, the UK’s National Standards Body, to launch the first government-backed Code of Practice (PAS 7100) for product safety recall in the UK.

The Code is the centrepiece of the Government’s 2018 National Product Safety Strategy

The Code of Practice includes details on how a business can monitor the safety of products and plan for a recall, and how Market Surveillance Authorities such as local authority Trading Standards can support businesses in their monitoring of incidents and their implementation of corrective action.

To comply with the code, businesses need a plan to show how they would deal with a product safety incident and that they have the information and resources required to do so.

Our online toolkit consisting of online learning, a planning tool and a reporting log provides companies with the components they need to comply with the Code. Additional support is available if required to put the Plan together.