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A risk-based approach to product safety?

Published: 8 Feb 2022

The UK Government is undertaking a major review of product safety legislation. Here, we assess some of the key findings from its consultation so far. 

A transition to a more risk-based approach to product safety and testing is a likely outcome of a wide-ranging review currently taking place in the UK.   

The UK Government’s Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) has published its analysis of findings from its call for evidence on product safety. This forms part of a product safety review (PSR) that began in 2021 and is continuing this year. 

The PSR is considering whether the UK’s product safety framework takes account of new risks and opportunities, so it delivers safe outcomes and supports business growth and innovation. Also under consideration is whether it can respond quickly to new and emerging threats to, and opportunities for, product safety, including digital technologies and new ways of supplying products. The third point being considered is whether it supports regulators and businesses to be open and transparent about product safety so consumers can make informed decisions. 

The call for evidence raised some important themes that will be relevant for any quality professionals involved in manufacturing and selling products – and testing their safety.

Some UK product safety laws are now more than 30 years old, and the review seeks to ensure new laws are relevant and effective in covering emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D printing, as well as future innovations and business models.  

It is focusing on five key themes: 

  • product design and manufacture 
  • new models of supply (particularly e-commerce) 
  • new products and product lifestyles (such as those using AI) 
  • enforcement 
  • a diverse and inclusive product safety framework. 

The call for evidence recorded 158 responses, including just 18 from manufacturers or distributors. As a number of observers have pointed out, this is a disappointing response rate considering the wide-ranging impact any changes to the law and regulation would have.  

However, it still raised some important themes that will be relevant for any quality professionals involved in manufacturing and selling products – and testing their safety. 

Theme one: Outcomes-focused, risk-based approach 

The OPSS points out that the UK’s system was not designed with today’s products and models of supply in mind. It says responses to the review show that the current outcomes-based framework needs to be “more explicitly based on risk, with higher requirements for tests, assessments and transparency for products presenting greater inherent hazards and… higher levels of risk in the supply chain”. 

Respondents also reinforced the global challenges posed by technological innovation. The accelerating growth of sales through third-party listings on online marketplaces and platforms, along with consumers buying directly from abroad, hinder authorities’ ability to take enforcement action. Ultimately, they threaten consumers’ safety and their ability to seek redress when something goes wrong. 

Theme two: Serious challenges and opportunities 

Respondents said the current system is coming under a mix of other serious and unprecedented challenges. With further supply chain and product innovation inevitable, the safety framework must be made more adaptable and responsive. The OPSS points out that supporting the transition to net zero will be important. “As products become increasingly energy and resource-efficient, with longer product lifecycles and greater ability to repair and reuse, it is important that consumers can have confidence in their safety so that the environmental benefits of these trends are fully realised.” 

Theme three: Simple, proportionate and consistent 

The OPSS says that, following the UK’s departure from the European Union, there is a “genuine opportunity to think boldly about how we regulate product safety” and to reform the currently complex map of product safety legislation. To prioritise growth and “unleash innovation”, it argues that the future framework needs to be simple, consistent and risk-proportionate.  

Long- and short-term approaches 

The OPSS says it needs to take a long-term approach to shaping the regulatory framework for product safety. It intends to continue consulting widely on a multi-faceted reform programme that will include “considering how product safety processes and testing processes could become more risk-based”. 

In the shorter term, it has highlighted a number of areas where it intends to take immediate action to address some issues raised during the call for evidence process. The most significant of these is for online markets, where it says it will: 

  • focus on the safety and compliance of goods sold by third-party sellers through online marketplaces 
  • challenge online marketplaces to play their part to protect UK consumers from unsafe goods 
  • identify digital tools that could be used to support regulators when taking action to prevent harm from unsafe products. It will also consider further how technology (including developments in machine-learning and AI) could improve enforcement capability in the UK      
  • issue clear warnings to UK consumers highlighting the safety risks involved when purchasing products online. 

It will be interesting for all of us – in our professional capacities and as consumers – to observe how quickly this bold rhetoric is turned into genuine action. 

Read the full response to the OPSS call for evidence.