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The Complexities of Product Safety in the 21st Century

In preparing a detailed response to the BEIS, Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) consultation: UK Product safety Review : Call for evidence the National Consumer Federation has needed to consider some fundamental issues for product safety in the very complex world in which we now live. As a precursor to our submission, the following short paper indicates the basis of our thinking and key points we believe need to be addressed.


The Nature of the Beast

When it comes to product safety and the related product liability, what is a ‘product’?.

Many purchases involve something that comprises a number of components often from different manufacturers. When might each component be considered a ‘product’? When a transaction takes place? A product may embody other products each with its own safety assessment on which the final manufacturer/seller relies (e.g. compliance with individual product standards) but their safe use in combination must also be assured.

Your Smart Phone
Your phone comprises hardware and software – an operating system and apps compatible with the operating system. Safety depends on all of these being compatible, and the continued availability of support, be it batteries or software updates. Issues for consumers can arise if the components of a consumer product have different safe or useful lives. Can a smart phone be considered safe if it has a useful life of, say, 5 years but support of the operating system ceases after 2?

Safety has a time element. This is clear in products like vehicles or more particularly aircraft where regular schedules are set out for maintenance and replacement to ensure continued safe operation.

There are clear parallels with building materials where their safety depends on where and how they are deployed. The onus must be on the constructor (of buildings, aircraft etc) to satisfy themselves that the components they deploy are safe in the way they have been used.

The NCF response to OPSS

1. The NCF starting point is the ISO 10377:2013 definition for a consumer product.
“2.2 Consumer Product
Product designed and produced primarily for, but not limited to, personal use, including its components, parts, accessories, instructions and packaging.”
This needs to be enhanced with clarity over the role of ‘digital’ product functionality as a component.

2. Consumer products going digital

2.1 For the 21st Century consumer products include digital functionality that brings with it new issues such as: enabling remote control; the ever-changing nature of software and hence, product functionality and performance; control involving use of algorithms for control in complex situations; and interactions between humans and automated control as control passes between them or requires joint actions. All complicated by the security of access to products to prevent malicious use.

2.2 To address such digital issues new functional safety by design principles should be applied for safe design, reducing the risk of physical harms through design for foreseeable use, misuse and malicious use by 3rd parties.

2.3 There is the need for a clear duty of care provided by the manufacturer for consumers across the product lifecycle from design to end of life. Installation and maintenance, product design upgrades, market surveillance and retrofits all figure strongly in such care being exercised effectively.
2.4 The role of 3rd party products needs to be considered in overall product operation. There are products that interoperate to provide overall usefulness, and also the actual integration of products, such as adding voice control from the likes of Amazon, Google or Apple.
2.5 We also have to ask ourselves “What is Safety?” It should be beyond physical harm. Safety is defined in dictionaries as “the state of being safe from harm or danger” supplemented by the definition of the main impacts of harm – physical, financial, psychological, sexual, neglect and self-harm .
2.6. There are also a number of more detailed issues to address:
      a) Unsafe products on sale online
      b) Conformity assessment and accreditation
      c) Product liabilities for the manufacturer and others including liability over the product lifecycle and short software support timescales
      d) Consumer to consumer sales
      e) Product safety incidents databases
      f) Regulatory effectiveness including enforcement and the consumer right to redress
      g) There are closely related issues for consumer homes safety to ensure that what is built is safe and then that safety is maintained over the life of the building.

The National Consumer Federation’s full submission to the consultation will be made available on the NCF website.

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