By Diane M. Calabrese / Published July 2016
With cradle-to-grave responsibility for products now routinely assigned to manufacturers, product makers have more incentive than ever to ensure their products are safe. Yet conscientious manufacturers have long endeavored to make safe products without the liability-in-perpetuity factor that has come to their doorsteps.
From circuit breakers to unloader valves, fail-safe mechanisms are built into as many parts of a product as possible. Risk of any activity, including operating machinery, cannot be reduced to zero, but the risk of injury associated with a system failure, however rare, can be mitigated.
When developing safe products, manufacturers confront two big challenges. One, the regulations and regulators interested in each product differ. Two, the level of acceptable risk is difficult to define, especially in a litigious society.
As we write, a massive recall of automobiles with air bags that may inflate, rupture, and spew shards is underway. Will the process of replacing air bags cause more injuries than leaving bags in place?
And also as we write, the Washington, DC Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) plans massive service shutdowns across the next year on a system that reduces vehicular traffic. Will the additional cars on the already congested roads pose a greater risk than the concern about rail failures, such as smoke from the third rail? As the latest development, the federal government is threatening to shut down the entire system in the interest of safety or to achieve zero risk to riders. No riders, no risk.
Whatever the answer to the questions, there are two takeaway points: risk analysis is complicated by the memory of the most recent occurrence of failure, which may be relatively minor across time and space. And, redundancy (of which DC-Metro has almost none) is a key element in safety.
To design a safe product, engineers (e.g., mechanical, electrical) follow standards set by their own professional organizations. They also keep pace with regulations governing specific components.
Planning, testing, and redoing are all part of reaching the end goal: a safe product. Even when the goal is met, things can still happen. Safety glass of any sort—laminated, tempered, wire, for instance—has reduced injuries everywhere it’s been integrated into products. That does not mean safety glass cannot be involved in an injury, given that a high enough impact can send a piece of safety glass itself through body tissues.
Anything can happen. Risk will never be zero. We sometimes forget the great strides in safety that have been made to date. Belts, gears, and engines are encased; one hundred years ago, that was not the norm. Nor was the integration of safeguards—emergency stops, especially—into all types of machinery.
Enormous gains aside, human error will always be part of the equation. Hence, there are more safeguards than ever on products. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which in part dictates equipment and parts that must be approved by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL), is engaged in setting standards. Other federal—and even state and local entities—also set rules for safe products. (In the case of the latter, recall the number of parties interested in lead in products.)
In addition, in 2013, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) gave the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) new regulatory and enforcement tools. The CPSC agency rule list in fall 2015 included proposed rules ranging from standards for infant bouncer seats to portable generators.
The proposed rule on portable generators was published in the fall of 2015, though its root extends to 2006. To assess the impact of portable generators (particularly carbon monoxide) on indoor air quality, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted tests with both off-shelf and prototype generators. The preparation of a rule that would mandate a low carbon monoxide emission portable generator is expected by September 2016.
Navigating the labyrinth of proposed rules—and pre-rules, a CPSC term—in order to provide comment takes time. The process requires systematic method and coordination.
To keep pace with government regulations, manufacturers benefit from belonging to professional organizations that monitor rules and develop standards (usually through consensus, best practices). ANSI [American National Standards Institute] and ASTM International are two such groups. (ASTM takes its name from its moniker at founding in 1898, the American Society for Testing and Materials.) There is also ISO, the Inter-national Organization for Standardization, and IEC, the International Electrotechnical Commission. In addition, there are joint ISO/IEC standards.
Along with designing for safety and ensuring that workers are thoroughly trained in proper use of equipment and safe practices, many organizations see the next great advance in safety deriving from standardization (e.g., interchangeable attachments, interchangeability between devices made by different manufacturers). Read more about the concept at the website of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (www.aem.org).
Cleaner Times (CT) put a few questions about the principles of developing safe products to Dr. Marlo Dean, senior support services manager at Kärcher North America in Camas, WA. The exchange follows.
CT: Is there one principle that guides your company in the development of safe products?
Dean: I believe every company today strives to develop safe products—some out of fear of liability litigation, and others out of a corporate philosophy building a reputation of good, reliable, safe products building a good brand identity. There are regulations that require companies to comply, such as those from OSHA and CPSIA. Some companies ignore these requirements because compliance is very expensive and they feel the risk is not worth the cost.
Our company’s position is, how do you put a price on customer safety? You can’t, so we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars having our products tested and inspected to industry safety standards. We perform endurance, stability, aging, flame, temperature, over-pressurization, dielectric strength, current leakage, ground testing, emission, and other important tests to verify a safe product.
Then, we hire an NRTL to verify our products comply with industry safety standards that are written to make products safe. These safety standards include warning labels, operation, installation, and construction requirements for products to keep the operator safe. I sit on the UL committee that recently published the new harmonized pressure washer standard, UL 60335-2-79, that was written for our industry by our industry.
CT: What is the greatest challenge in ascertaining that a new product is a safe product?
Dean: If we follow the industry safety standards like UL 1776, UL 60335-2-79, CSA B140.11, and CSA C22.2 #68, which also incorporates several other associated safety standards, our products should be very safe. [CSA is the Canadian Standards Association.] The problem is determining if the operator is going to follow all of the warnings and instructions and operate our equipment in a manner in which it was designed to operate.
Trying to design a bulletproof product is difficult. We design and construct our products to all of the industry safety standards and then take another step and perform endurance testing and actual field testing before a product is released to the public.
CT: What can a company committed to safe products do to prevent buyers of its products from using the products incorrectly, a situation which leads to safety issues?
Dean: We can educate by providing detailed instructions and warning labels. Our dealer and distributor network does individual training of the end user and instructs them on the proper use, pointing out the warnings in the manual and the importance of wearing safety equipment like goggles (face shield) and ear protection. [Dean shares a page from a safety manual so comprehensive it includes a grip warning to hold a wand with both hands before starting to avoid a whipping wand at startup.]
CT: What should we ask you?
Dean: The thing which is difficult to understand is when we have competitors that design and manufacturer similar products but fail to follow industry safety standards and spend the time and money to verify that their product is safe by hiring a NRTL to list and certify their products. I have had discussions with these people, and they believe certification and compliance are too expensive and not worth the money because there is no enforcement other than removing their product or having an inspector red tag their product. They believe the liability risk is still there with or without certification, and the cost to verify safety is just too expensive.
Our company has the position that personal safety should never be determined by cost. Compliance to safety standards does require adding safety components and warnings to our products, and then having an NRTL or third-party testing agency test and inspect our products is very expensive. But we sleep a little better at night knowing we have done everything possible to make our products safe for the end-user. It is not just compliance to OSHA and CPSIA regulations, which is a strong motivator, but rather it is the right thing to do by being a responsible company concerned for the people who purchase and operate our products.