Over the past few years, product safety has risen to the top of the consumer agenda, making something that was often taken for granted into a key public issue.
In part, this has a lot to do with ongoing uncertainty over post-Brexit safety regulations, but a number of high-profile incidents involving children in recent years have been the main driver of wider awareness of product safety.
In 2014, BBC presenter Claudia Winkleman experienced what she described as a “life-changing” incident when her eight-year-old daughter’s Halloween costume caught fire, leaving the child with serious burns. In 2016, 16-month-old Bronwyn Taylor sadly died when she became tangled in blind cords at her grandparents’ house, after being left alone for a matter of seconds.
And in 2017, a three-year-old girl suffered fatal internal injuries after swallowing a 23mm button battery that became lodged in her oesophagus, after she had been initially misdiagnosed with tonsillitis.
These tragic cases would be unfortunate enough were they rare, isolated incidents. However, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) makes clear that “accidental injuries are a major health problem in the UK”, adding that they are among “the most common causes of death in children over one year of age”, with an average of 62 children dying from accidents at home every year.
It’s tempting to wonder what can be done to remedy the situation, and why things haven’t been improved already. Sadly, it would be impossible to prevent all accidents, but work is being stepped up to increase awareness and tighten regulations so preventable accidents and those related to product safety can be reduced as much as possible.
The main body tasked with leading the charge in this field is the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS). The department was created in 2018, with a product regulation remit that focuses on – among other areas – “ensuring that people and places are protected, and helping consumers to make good choices”, according to CEO Graham Russell. With this in mind, over the past year OPSS has launched product safety campaigns, alongside the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), specifically focused on protecting children from accidents and dangerous products, including Halloween costumes, blind cords and button batteries.
The most recent OPSS Halloween costume guidance was divided into a number of key messages, distributed through a poster, leaflet and Twitter campaign. The advice is: keep children away from open flames; look for the CE mark when buying costumes to ensure they are safety tested; avoid counterfeit products from marketplaces and secondary sellers; check the Government’s product recall database to ensure items haven’t been recalled; and contact Citizens Advice if you discover that you’ve bought a fake or faulty item.
Though it is based on common sense, this advice is particularly important for Halloween costumes, given the limited regulation in place. “These items are required to conform to ‘EN 71-2 – safety of toys – flammability’, which isn’t a particularly onerous standard”, explains Robert Chantry-Price, CTSI’s Joint Lead Officer for Product Safety.
Safety starts at home
While Halloween costume accidents often take place outdoors, button battery and blind cord incidents mostly occur inside the home, making them much more difficult to control and monitor. “Button batteries are increasingly found in many consumer products, such as remote controls, watches, hearing aids and toys in almost every home,” says Christine Heemskerk, CTSI’s Joint Lead Officer for Product Safety.
“If a child swallows a button battery and it gets stuck in the throat or stomach, it will react with body fluids to create caustic soda, which can cause severe burns and sometimes fatal injuries.”
In light of these dangers, OPSS’s safety campaign focuses on awareness, care and avoidance. “Parents should make sure products using button batteries have lockable battery compartments; children should not be allowed access to products if the battery compartment is not secure,” says Heemskerk. “Spare batteries should be locked away, and once batteries are dead they should be stored securely out of reach, and then recycled as soon as possible.”
Of course, it’s difficult to tell whether a child has swallowed a button battery, particularly when they’re too young to explain what’s wrong. Parents are advised to look out for warning signs. These include coughing, gagging, drooling or being sick; appearing to have an upset stomach or pointing to their stomach or throat; being tired, lethargic or out of sorts; or vomiting blood. Should these symptoms be observed, parents should take the child to A&E or call an ambulance, taking the battery’s packaging along if possible.
Blind to the danger
Blind cords are perhaps the least well-known danger that OPSS has released specific guidance for recently, though they present a huge risk to young children. “There have been 33 child deaths due to blind cords since 2001,” explains Heemskerk. “They pose a serious strangulation risk to young children, who may inadvertently wrap the cord around their neck and be unable to untangle themselves.”
Regulations are now in place to ensure that newly fitted blinds have cords with safety features that keep them out of reach, or cause them to break under pressure. However, as Chantry-Price explains, “blinds that were fitted before 2014 are problematic, as the revised safety standard only came into force that year”.
This obviously affects thousands of homes across the UK, though OPSS is keen to raise awareness of the simple steps owners of pre-2014 blinds can take to make them safe for young children. “If you have blinds fitted with cords or chains that are not firmly attached to the wall, it’s important to fit a cord tidy or cable tensioner,” says Chantry-Price. “This doesn’t just apply to parents, but to carers such as grandparents and friends of the family who may have potentially dangerous blinds in their home.” Prevention, however, is the safest option, and Heemskerk notes that parents “should avoid placing a child’s cot, bed, playpen or highchair near a window”.
These campaigns serve as a strong example of OPSS’s consumer-facing role, helping to increase awareness and aid members of the public in making safe choices. However, the campaigns aren’t intended to imply that responsibility lies solely with individuals and families; manufacturers and authorities have an equally vital role to play. “Trading standards and OPSS work together to ensure that products meet the minimum standards required in terms of the hazards that they present, through market surveillance and enforcement activities,” explains Mark Gardiner, CEO of Market Surveillance and another CTSI Joint Lead Officer for Product Safety. One example of such enforcement is the recent case of child car seat manufacturer Mamas & Papas, which was fined £20,000 for selling products that didn’t meet safety standards.
“Manufacturers have an important part to play by complying with legislation, ensuring products conform to laws and safety requirements,” explains Chantry-Price. “In fact, those that do conform sometimes hide their light under a bushel and don’t take advantage of this fact by labelling their products loud and clear.”
Ultimately, there’s no way to completely ensure safety, especially when it comes to children. Rather, the fight for product safety is a never-ending push for marginal gains, with the key stakeholders never resting in their efforts to mitigate dangers and make homes and public spaces safer.
Public bodies such as OPSS and CTSI work tirelessly to develop safety standards, monitor the market to enforce regulations, and campaign for increased awareness among parents and carers, and it is through this work that hundreds, if not thousands of tragedies are averted. Some will, of course, still occur, and authorities will act accordingly to ensure that – as in the case of Bronwyn Taylor – no life is lost in vain, with lessons learned and shared as widely as possible to minimise risks in the future.