Testifying to product safety

By Martyn Allen, Technical Director, Electrical Safety First

Electrical Safety First’s consumer safety role involves much more than launching high profile media campaigns. The Charity undertakes a range of activities, from running major industry events promoting best practice, to lobbying Government for improvements in product safety legislation and guidance.

Core to all of its work, however, is its technical expertise. This has recently involved being called as a witness to provide expert testimony at a Parliamentary Select Committee investigating the Whirlpool recall and response to its faulty tumble dryers.

Martyn Allen, Technical Director at Electrical Safety First, explains.

Currently, electrical product recalls typically have a success rate of just 10-20 per cent. Yet the prevalence of electrical fires – in 2016/17 there were 2,473 in England and Wales caused by faulty appliances (the equivalent of seven each day) – means it is an issue we can’t ignore. And, of course, it is an issue that has gained increased public and political concern following the tragic fires at Grenfell and Lakenhall House.

Improving recall effectiveness – and product registration – is something the Charity has been working on for a number of years and we have been closely involved in a range of responses designed to do just that.

Our report – Consumer Voices on Product Recall – was published in 2014. In it, we made a series of recommendations to improve the success rate of recalls. These ranged from creating a single online site for registration and recalls and using a variety of communication channels to engage with consumers. The report was used as a headline theme for our annual Product Safety Conference that year; and we were encouraged by the positive response of delegates to the ideas and approaches we suggested. However, progress has not been quite as rapid as we had hoped.

In 2015, we were asked to join the Government’s Recall Review Steering Group, established in response to an independent review led by leading consumer campaigner, Lynn Faulds Wood. The Group was superseded by the Working Group on Product Recalls and Safety – of which we were also a member. In response to recommendations, the Government launched the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) in 2018.

Last April, the OPSS issued its review into the safety of modified Whirlpool tumble dryers and the company’s handling of how it deals with consumers. The review criticised the company’s consumer engagement process but concluded that the risk to those machines modified by Whirlpool were safe to use.

Recently, however, Kelly Tolhurst, the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility, announced an ‘unprecedented’ recall of 500,000 Whirlpool tumble dryers yet to be modified: four years after the company issued its initial warning. To date, these unmodified machines have been blamed for at least 750 fires over an 11- year period.

Calling for a re-call

Electrical Safety First welcomes the fact that such direct action is being taken. We have, for some time, been calling for a full recall to be issued. A manufacturer’s response to potentially faulty goods should be instantaneous, with a robust and effective recall strategy in place that is seamlessly executed and clearly communicated to all affected. Consistency in ensuring manufacturers carry out effective recalls is a safety imperative, with any improvements in tracing affected machines welcome.

By the time you read this, I will have appeared before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee, to give evidence in its investigation into the Whirlpool recall and response. Among the Committee’s concerns was determining exactly how many unmodified machines – currently estimated at 300,000-500,000 – are still in people’s homes. This is, however, almost impossible to quantify, as Whirlpool simply doesn’t know where customers with affected machines are.

Not only could some people have moved house, others may have ‘passed on’ their machine; and recalled goods are still available for sale via online platforms. Improved registration processes for electrical items – particularly white goods – would obviously help this issue and it is something we have long lobbied for.

Better late than never

In the absence of a UK-wide recall database, Electrical Safety First provides consumers with a list of all the electrical product recalls that we know of. We asked Whirlpool to provide us with a list of product model numbers etc., as some consumers have continuing concerns around the modified models, or don’t have access to a computer, or simply want added assurance by checking the information themselves. To date, Whirlpool has chosen not to release these detailed lists.

At the Committee hearing in June, however, Whirlpool has finally agreed to publish these lists – which we welcome, although we believe they should have been made available sooner. The company has also agreed to replace (for free) any machines awaiting modification – though it appears they will not extend the offer to replace those products already modified.

In the meantime, Electrical Safety First is working closely with the Office for Product Safety and Standards to ensure that the UK’s product safety regime works as effectively as possible. And we will continue to call for a centrally managed product recall database. We will keep you posted.