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No marks for substandard safety equipment

09 April 2010

Discussions between the BSIF, BIS (Department for Business Innovation and Skills), LACORS (Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services) and the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) have identified a mutual desire to ensure that unsafe products are eliminated from the UK market

David Hall, chairman for the BSIF
David Hall, chairman for the BSIF

These substandard safety products and personal protective equipment (PPE) cause significant problems and the BSIF has received a number of reports of products not performing to the standards being claimed, equipment with falsified CE certificates and cheap copies of propriety PPE which appear not to have been subjected to the requirement for them to be independently tested.

Jacques Forrest, technical director, Centurion, first realised one of his company’s products was being cloned when a product was returned by a customer. "Whilst we recognised the shape and markings of the Centurion (S41) ear defender and the attenuation on the packaging, identical to ours in every way, the manufacturer’s name and address was different. Further investigation revealed that it was a copy and had been placed on the market without the notified body testing and certification. In fact the product was totally illegal. It doesn’t bear to start thinking of the complications should the prospective wearer suffer hearing loss!"

Again Forrest became aware of the growing problem at a foreign safety exhibition:

"Coming across what purported to be one of our helmets on a stand stopped us dead in our tracks. The exhibitors were happy to talk about the product and show us a legitimate CE certificate. However, several things caused concern. Firstly, the product was an exact copy of a Centurion helmet, but blank where the Centurion brand name usually is. Secondly, it was marked as being made from a different a polymeric material to that of the samples. Thirdly, when we confronted the Notified Body who had certified the product, they responded saying that they could only test what was presented and as hard hats are only Category 2 within the European PPE directive, it was not their responsibility if the product consisted of a non-certified material. This is correct, however, it did mean that the product in that material would not satisfy the requirements of the relevant Harmonised European Standard and was therefore not only counterfeit but also illegal."

Whilst hazards can be designed out of workplaces, this is not always possible or "practicable", in which case the selection of the most suitable protection is a vital issue and if that equipment does not do "what it says on the tin" injuries are likely to occur. The selection and purchase of suitable PPE can be a challenging task and is it not made any easier by the plethora of eager distributors. These vary on a wide spectrum from traditional business to business distributors acting as a ‘go between’ delivering products from the manufacturer, through to retailers and high street chains delivering products directly to the consumer. Within this spectrum, distributors will have different objectives and varying levels of specialist health and safety or product knowledge.

A distributor, compared to a manufacturer, is more likely to focus on the price of a product and whether it is fit for purpose rather than the detail of design and comfort. A traditional distributor would supply products with a professional and informed approach, however, they may not have the same level of product knowledge or understand the PPE requirements as fully as a manufacturer. This is even more of a problem with retailers, who often only sell PPE as an added value item, or because they stock equipment that legally requires PPE. Often these ‘resellers’ will only sell a ‘one type suits all’ product that is not always fit for purpose.

There is a wide spectrum of distributors with different levels of understanding and the majority provide suitable products and good advice. The BSIF sees it as its responsibility to engage with as many distributors as possible to encourage the supply of quality, fit for purpose products.

The problem of counterfeit and illegal products is exacerbated by the current economic climate. The main objective for a distributor is to secure an order and therefore in the current market, when end users are aggressively reviewing supplies of consumables to get the best deal, this may mean a heavy focus on price encouraging the distributor to source more competitively priced products with less consideration for quality and performance. This buying approach could make the distributor a target for counterfeit and illegal products.

Where incorrect, counterfeit or illegal products may have been identified in the past by staff familiar with the equipment, organisations downsizing due to the economic downturn causes the redeployment of staff, who may be unfamiliar with health and safety aspects of their new assignments. Therefore without extra care in the procurement of safety equipment to ensure that it is a legitimate product, there is a strong possibility that people will be at risk.

It is important for managers to remember that the Health & Safety Offences Act permits the courts to impose custodial sentences and fines of up to £20,000 on anybody found guilty of irresponsibility which causes injury to people at work. Lack of attention to the safety products being purchased to protect staff could well fall within the scope of this Act if the protection provided is unsuitable.

Stuart Boyd from W C Willis & Co commented: "As a long established independent distributor with over 30 years experience we have become acknowledged experts in our field. The safety industry is ever changing and it is essential for us to keep up to date with the latest regulations and technology so our customers can depend on accurate, up to the minute advice on products. We seriously recognise the position of registered suppliers in the market place and are pleased to be able to be identified as such, instilling additional confidence in our customers"

With a market that is increasingly being impacted with counterfeit and illegal products, purchasing vigilance is essential to protect people at work. Although products can come from anywhere from any number of manufacturers, suppliers should be able to tell you the brand name and product details. If a product is unusually cheap, has an unknown brand name, does not state performance and/or has the name of an unknown manufacturer, it should trigger further investigation. It is relatively easy to check whether the product is genuine and "safe" to use - if in doubt, visit the BSIF website or call direct for guidance on how to go about it.

Mike Ramirez, technical manager, Arco Limited, fully supports the BSIF initiative to eliminate non-compliant PPE from the UK Market.  "As the UK market leader, Arco has always followed a rigorous testing regime for its branded products to ensure continued conformance against EN standards.  This includes certification before the product is launched into the market and regular due diligence testing throughout the life of the product.  The safety of the people using our products is of upmost importance."

Within the BSIF's Counterfeit and Illegal products campaign, the BSIF has launched its Registered Safety Supplier Scheme that is designed to assist buyers of safety critical products find quality supply sources. Participating companies will be able to use the scheme shield if they qualify adhering to a strict set of criteria, to identify their organisation and products as ‘genuine and safe’. Registered Safety Suppliers will have fulfilled the following criteria; firstly, they will need to be BSIF members with an obligation to operate in a legal and ethical manner; secondly, they will have signed a formal and binding declaration stating that the safety products they offer are legal, comply with appropriate regulations and fulfil their claims; thirdly, they will have agreed to an independent audit of their quality control procedures. Any company which does not comply risks losing its Registered Safety Supplier shield and possibly, membership of the BSIF.

Jon Mellor, product support manager, Bunzl Greenham and vice chairman of the BSIF Distributor Group commented: "As a member of the BSIF, we fully support the Registered Safety Suppliers Scheme. It is important that that our customers can be confident that we are supplying genuine safety equipment which fulfils the requirements of their risk assessments and which is properly tested and certificated to European Safety Standards where applicable. The BSIF scheme Shield is an additional way of demonstrating this and offers them assurance."

The BSIF offers comprehensive advice on any products which cause concern including a brand glossary to easily identify a legitimate product. This can be especially helpful when using an own brand product which may not originate from a main distributor. The BSIF also has a standard reporting template for the public enforcement authorities and would like to be informed of any concerns about safety products.

David Hall, chairman for the BSIF commented: "The issue of counterfeit and illegal products is growing in the safety industry. One of the core aims of the BSIF has always been to help improve safety and health in the work place, therefore I’m sure this campaign will continue to be at the heart of BSIF activity for some time. 

"By joining the Registered Safety Suppliers Scheme we hope to give users of PPE equipment greater re-assurance and send a clear signal to those who sell or produce counterfeit and illegal products, that there is no place for these in the UK market."


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