Securing safety

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Campaigning charity Electrical Safety First is dedicated to reducing fires, accidents and deaths caused by electricity. Here, its technical director, Martyn Allen, outlines the ways in which the charity is working to ensure electrical safety. 

You might well have seen mention of Electrical Safety First in your paper or even the TV news, as many of our consumer awareness campaigns have garnered a high level of media coverage. But our consumer protection role involves a range of activities, from running major industry events supporting best business practice, to lobbying government for regular electrical checks in rented housing. Core to many of our activities, however, is our in-depth research into products and services posing the greatest potential risk to consumers. 

Our long-standing product safety screening programme allows us to identify and communicate potential product safety issues and make a tangible contribution to both market surveillance and standards development. Our findings are used to help consumers make sensible buying decisions and a summary of findings and recommendations published on our website and in our e-magazine, Switched On. But we also follow up all identified product failures, liaising with the relevant retailers and manufacturers – and ensure that the pertinent authorities are informed of our actions at all times.  

We select our product testing projects on the basis of perceived or identified risk from a range of sources. For example, our research on fake Apple chargers was used to establish a consumer media campaign and support our lobbying for tightening legislation around counterfeit goods – particularly those sold online.

Shock findings

Apple provided us with 64 (50 UK and 14 EU) counterfeit and lookalike chargers for examination and testing, to assess their safety performance and suitability. The chargers were obtained from a variety of sources, including a number of different online and independent discount high street retailers in the UK and mainland Europe. We found that almost all of the UK chargers tested (49 out of 50) had the potential to deliver a lethal electric shock and/or cause a fire. The 14 EU chargers included in the research failed every safety test in every respect.

These outcomes echoed those of similar studies. In 2016, Underwriters Laboratory analysed 400 counterfeit and lookalike 5W Apple chargers from the USA – and found a 99% failure rate. So, it’s interesting to note that the common thread between all 64 of the chargers we tested was their incorrect or fraudulent safety markings. 

Bearing witness

Our product research also takes other forms – such as when we are called as an expert witness. In 2017, a major high street retailer was prosecuted for selling fake charger kits. The kits – of which 72,000 are known to have been sold in the UK – included adaptors lacking adequate insulation between circuits and loose wiring, which increased the risk of fire or electric shock.  

At the court’s request, Electrical Safety First produced a report on the risks associated with the chargers and members of our Product Safety Unit were on hand to provide expert evidence. During the trial, it became clear that the charger kits had not been tested and the safety certificates provided by the product test laboratory were forged. Ironically, among the tools Electrical Safety First has developed is a simple plug checker, which provides a rapid visual check to ensure the external construction of the plug fulfils legal requirements. By using our plug checker, the high street store in question would have easily seen that the plug pins were incorrectly located – a sure sign of fakery.

This prosecution was the first where an unlimited fine was applied – previously, they were limited to a maximum of £5,000. Together with costs, the retailer was ordered to pay a total of £190,000. One reason given for the increased penalty was the retailer’s failure to issue a rapid alert recall notice. It also failed to undertake timely and effective communication with consumers, to inform them of the dangers of the product.  

To encourage companies who have developed an innovative product (or project) that can make a difference to improve consumer safety, we have also established a Safety Innovation Award, with the winners announced at our annual product safety conference.