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Things can only get better

Jill Paterson and Andrew Vaughan-Davies discuss the urgent need for clarification and enforcement of product safety laws to prevent house fires caused by faulty appliances

white goods fire
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Jill Paterson is a partner in the Product Safety and Consumer Law department. Andrew Vaughan-Davies is a Paralegal and former Fire Investigation Officer in the London Fire Brigade.
The consequences of fires to individuals, families and our communities are far reaching, traumatising, painful and destabilising.   
 
Which? reports that over 6,000 house fires were caused by faulty appliances between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2016.  The issues that need to be addressed regarding defective white goods that cause these devastating fires are sadly numerous, but must be tackled head-on by the Government’s new Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS).
 
The OPSS must adopt a “New Vision” to ensure that manufacturers take responsibility for the appliances they sell for use in our homes, and to remove them from our homes if they are unsafe.  There must be no wriggle room if a manufacturer identifies a potentially unsafe product.  The EU Commission’s Rapid Alert System Rapex  lists recalls of products that are of serious risk to the consumer. However, take a look at the weekly reports and you will struggle to find a recall relating to white goods. Fire is indiscriminate and can endanger the life of one or of many. It is clearly a serious risk.  The recalls relating to choking hazards, electric shock, toxic chemicals in jewellery and personal wear, novelty lighters, chargers and vehicles are numerous and are all serious.  So why do white goods make such a rare appearance given the numbers of fires that reportedly started with a defective white good?
 
How can things get better? It’s simple - clarification and enforcement of product safety laws; funding for law enforcers; realistic and meaningful risk assessments by manufacturers when a product is implicated as the cause of fire; consideration of reasonable worst case scenario. Devastating house fires in houses and tower blocks are not scenarios. They are worst case and they are reality.
 
The OPSS must focus on the products that seem to start these fires, to prevent the lives of consumers being destroyed both physically and mentally. 
 
In the foreword to the OPSS’s Strategy(1), the new Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility, Kelly Tolhurst, highlights that “The safety of individuals, families and communities is a top priority for Government….we must ensure that our approach to regulation responds to changing needs whilst delivering the safety outcomes that every citizen expects. This can only be achieved through determined action and a shared commitment to doing the things that matter, that drive change, and that improve outcomes.” This is a laudable mission statement that must be backed by action and the OPSS has the opportunity to achieve this.
 
In March 2018, the OPSS published a “Code of practice on consumer product safety related recalls and other corrective actions”, otherwise known as PAS7100:2018. The Code was produced in conjunction with BSI. Part 1 of the Code provides guidance for businesses as to good practice in respect of product safety recalls. Part 2 provides guidance for regulators, including in respect of monitoring incidents and supporting them in respect of any necessary corrective action.
 
Such guidance was long overdue and was something highlighted as necessary by Consumer Champion, Lynn Faulds Wood, in her independent review titled “UK consumer product recall”, which was published in February 2016. In her review, Ms Faulds Wood recommended step-by-step guidance for businesses on product recall, including how to conduct proper risk assessments and use of clear language.
 
The Code encourages businesses to have a product safety incident plan (PSIP) in place in advance of an incident and with commitment from senior management. In developing the PSIP, businesses are encouraged to get input from a number of relevant areas, and to consult with the relevant Market Surveillance Authority. The Code suggests that a PSIP should include a number of different elements, including a plan in respect of product and customer traceability, as well as risk assessment and how a recall will be communicated.
 
The guidance provided by the Code can only be welcomed and, if followed, should provide better protection for consumers. It is a great start, but needs to be followed with further action and at a faster pace.
 
In the Autumn 2018 Budget, Philip Hammond claimed that the “era of austerity is finally coming to an end”(2).  So now let’s see more funding for the enforcement agencies, for Trading Standards, as well as more powers, so that they can ensure that unsafe products do not reach our homes and are removed rapidly when they are found to be the cause of fires.
 
 
 
(1) Strengthening National Capacity for Product Safety - Strategy 2018 - 2020
(2) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-46010550
 
 

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