We consumers are a trusting bunch. We’ll spend hours carefully comparing the specs of two competing products, pore over reviews, and scrutinize images and videos of potential purchases (please tell me I’m not alone). But do we ever check to see if the product has been certified as safe by an independent third party before hitting the buy button?
Typically, we don’t, and it’s a growing problem — just ask the unfortunate Samsung Galaxy Note 7 buyers who recently discovered that their phones came with an undocumented feature: the ability to spontaneously combust.
You can chalk this behavior up to complacency. After decades of seeing those reassuring little marks like UL, CSA, or ETL — and hearing only rare situations where a gadget or appliance has failed in a spectacular or dangerous fashion — we’ve come to expect that our purchases aren’t going to kill us. After all, you can’t sell a product that hasn’t been tested, can you?
Surprisingly, yes, you can.
“Technically anything can be put on the market to consumers,” says John Coviello, senior test engineer of electrical products at TUV Rheinland of North America, a company that performs safety certifications on thousands of products marketed globally. Over at UL (previously known by its full name, Underwriter’s Laboratory), consumer safety director John Drengenberg concurs. “I’m not aware of any federal law that requires a consumer product or even a commercial product to come to UL or any testing organization,” he told Digital Trends. “There is no such thing.”
What the hoverboard explosions can teach us about Note 7
Despite the lack of a legal requirement to do so, billions of products are tested every year by independent third-parties like UL and TUV, which is why dangerous product failures are relatively rare. Nonetheless, the loophole exists, and some companies take advantage of the situation, leaving consumers without any way of verifying the safety of a product.
Last year, this situation played out with devastating consequences, thanks to a spate of incidents of “hoverboards” bursting into flames. It has become such a common problem with these devices, enterprising accessory companies are jumping into the fray with products to help owners avoid catastrophe. One might be tempted to lay the blame on small-time manufacturers who have cut one too many corners in an attempt to quickly cash-in on the latest trend. But as the Galaxy Note 7 debacle proves, it can happen to major, household-name brands too. But why?
“In the U.S., for home use, a product isn’t required to have any [safety] approvals,” Coviello points out. “That’s probably why you have these scooters burning up. They weren’t approved, which is the whole crux of the problem.” Adding fuel to this safety fire is the misapplication (or in some cases outright fraudulent application) of safety certification marks. Canadian hoverboard online retailer Hoverbird.ca makes the following claim in its FAQ:
“Are Hoverboards safe for humans and children? All our Hoverboards come with a digital speed limiter, preventing the boards from traveling faster than 10mph for rider safety. All our Hoverboards batteries & charger are UL certified, which means our products are safe for use by humans of all ages.”
This certainly sounds like grounds for confidence on the part of the consumer. Trouble is, the battery and charger are only two parts of a larger system, which includes the circuitry that transfers power from the battery to the motor and the housing of the battery. If the entire product hasn’t been UL or CSA certified for safety, there’s a chance it’s not as safe as the seller suggests.
“The [battery] cells might be UL certified, but they weren’t tested in combination with 30 of those,” Coviello says. “There’s supposed to be control circuitry to monitor them all,” he adds, referring to the fact that hoverboards use more than one battery. “If that circuitry is not in there, it will work — until something goes wrong.” In fact, many hoverboard fires have occurred when in use or being stored, not connected to the charger.
In the case of the Galaxy Note 7, Samsung has laid the blame for the explosions and fires on the batteries themselves, citing a manufacturing error. Coviello thought this is the most plausible explanation, given that the design of the batteries usually undergo “very torturous testing.”
If there’s no law requiring these safety certifications, what’s the incentive for manufacturers to acquire them? “For consumer products, the driving force is the retailer,” Drengenberg answered. “You can build the best clock-radio ever in your basement and a retailer might be ready to order a million of them,” he said, but the retailer will first ask that it be certified for safety. “They don’t want to undertake the risk of putting it on their shelves and having problems with it.”
Coviello agreed that retailers largely want to keep dangerous items off their shelves, but isn’t convinced that all retailers police this requirement equally. “You go take a look at those store shelves, I’m sure you’ll find something that’s not approved,” he warned. “There is no law that requires retailers to only sell certified products.”
Amazon, for instance, is reluctant to speak directly to the question of whether or not it requires — or verifies — the safety certifications of the products it sells. Shortly before writing this article, I bought an Aukey USB wall charger from Amazon.ca, which exhibited some sparking and buzzing when I used it. The charger bore an ETL safety certification from Intertek — a third-party safety certification company similar to UL and TUV — which I assumed was an assurance that the product was safe. A call to Intertek revealed that while it’s possible the Aukey charger had been certified by them, the product was not authorized by Intertek to bear their certification mark because Intertek has never certified a product sold under the “Aukey” brand.
What have we learned so far? First, there’s no legal requirement for consumer products to be safety-certified by an independent third party, like UL. Second, even when products contain safety certified parts like batteries, the product itself may not have been tested and certified. Third, though retailers are likely to insist on a safety certification for products they sell, the lack of a legal framework to require it, or any mechanism to enforce it, means that non-certified products can and do make it onto retail shelves be they physical or digital.
But there’s a further complication. Not all safety certifications are equal. In Europe, companies are allowed to mark their products with the “CE” stamp if they have performed in-house testing and can prove (if asked) that their products conform to the applicable safety standards. It’s a process known as self-certification and it means that no independent third-party was involved in verifying the manufacturer’s claims.
Greg Mombert/Digital Trends
“They’re supposed to do the same thing that I would have done to their product,” Coviello told us. “With good companies, it’s good work. With bad companies, it might not be.”
Consumers think of the CE mark as equivalent to UL, CSA, or TUV. “They couldn’t be more wrong.”
Take a look at any electronic gadget you have handy. Odds are, if it has any certifying mark on it, it will be the “CE” logo. There may be others as well, but CE has become nearly ubiquitous, and that’s a huge problem according to Drengenberg. Consumers tend to think of the CE mark as equivalent to UL, CSA, or TUV but “They couldn’t be more wrong,” he said, “I have never relied on the CE mark.”
Unfortunately, the CE mark is a perfect solution for smaller companies. Anxious retailers and consumers alike view it as a “good enough” indicator of safety, while the manufacturer gets to sidestep the often lengthy and expensive process of third-party certification. “Submitting through a test lab can take two to three months and cost tens of thousands of dollars,” Coviello noted. “A small company may not have the means to spend that kind of money.”
One of the reasons third-party certification is so expensive is it’s not a one-time charge. In order to keep a product certified, the manufacturer must submit to assembly line visits by the certifying agency, often several times a year and sometimes on an unannounced basis. Fees must be paid annually for each certified product. Any significant change to the product design, materials, or manufacturing process triggers a re-certification cycle.
These financial burdens could certainly explain why small companies choose to self-certify, but it does not offer much insight into a similar choice by a massive multi-billion dollar company. Samsung chose to self-certify under the CE mark for the Galaxy Note 7, rather than use UL or another recognized mark.
But it’s not alone: Apple does the same thing for the iPhone.
Even third-party certification is not a safety guarantee
One might be tempted to think that a product bearing a valid third-party certification mark is therefore safe, and you can breathe easy once you’ve seen it stamped on your purchase. Yet it’s not an iron-clad guarantee. Certified products can still be dangerous. “The use of certification […] shows to the consumer that the company who makes the products has made a reasonable effort to ensure the product they market will not harm its users,” Coviello pointed out, but reminded us, “there is no such thing in life as a guarantee of safety.” A good example of this reality happened recently: The CPSC issued a recall of a Broan ventilation fan for posing a fire hazard; the product was fully certified by UL. “It’s rare,” Drengenberg said, but conceded that “every so often a product that carries a UL mark is recalled.” The details of this particular recall are still under investigation by UL.
John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, examines an electric hoverboard. (Photo: UL)
Legally speaking, your rights as a consumer don’t change whether the product you bought bears a self-certified mark, an independent mark, or no mark at all. “Even if the manufacturer was extremely careful and exercised the utmost level of care in manufacturing the product, it is still liable in case the product injures someone or otherwise causes someone harm,” said Kevin Adkins of LA-based Kenmore Law Group. Adkins pointed out that in the event of damages occurring through the use of a product, the consumer is almost the only one who doesn’t share in the responsibility. “The manufacturer, retailer, and anyone responsible for putting the product into the ‘stream of commerce’ is strictly liable for any damages caused to consumers as a result of a defective product,” he said. Even an independent third party like UL could be found liable, if it didn’t exercise adequate care in testing the product for safety.
Galaxy Note 7, or when is a recall a recall?
When things go awry, it’s often less important to focus on why it happened — especially if the manufacturer has already identified the problem and taken steps to resolve it — than it is to deal with the damage and prevent further risk to consumers. In short, it’s all about the recall. In the highly regulated automotive world, recalls are commonplace, covering everything from minor risks to major ones. In the consumer tech world, it’s more of a rarity.
Shortly after it became clear that there was a problem with the Galaxy Note 7, Samsung issued a recall, on Sept. 2. It was not a “legal” recall, however — that would have required the participation of the CPSC. Consumer Reports thinks Samsung’s handling of the Galaxy Note 7 situation fell short of the mark. “Rather than initially launching their own independent recall effort,” communications counsel James McQueen told us by email, “we felt that Samsung should have immediately initiated an official recall with the CPSC given the serious nature of the safety problem it identified with the Galaxy Note 7.”
Samsung’s recall included a stop-sales order on all new Galaxy Note 7s, but this is a directive from the company and doesn’t have any legal consequences for maverick retailers who may see the problem as too small to worry about. A recall performed through the CPSC “would make it illegal to sell the product, require an appropriate fix be in place, and provide clear and consistent guidance to consumers,” according to McQueen.
In Canada, the recall was made official on September 12, and includes instructions on what consumers should do, while making sales of the device illegal in that country.
As Coviello said, there are no guarantees in life, but consumers can decrease the odds of becoming victims to their purchases with a little due diligence. Check to see if the product you’re researching had been certified by a third party. Maria Rerecich, head of electronics testing at Consumer Reports, told us that while a CE mark isn’t as ideal as an independent mark, “it’s better than nothing.” If the certification mark looks suspicious — especially if there’s a spelling mistake, Drengenberg warns — contact the issuing test lab and confirm its authenticity. Beware of items that are “significantly less expensive” than comparable products, warned Rerecich. This could indicate that shortcuts were taken during manufacturing.
“You gotta wonder what’s behind it,” she said, “It’s not that they want to give you a good deal.”
McQueen urges consumers to be vigilant even after a purchase: “If any electronic device shows signs of overheating, it should be turned off, unplugged, and should not be used.” But he’s clear that the ultimate responsibility lies with manufacturers, who must ensure that consumers receive timely, clear, and consistent guidance relating to a product safety issue.
“We hope that’s the lesson from the [Note 7] ordeal.”