In the European Union, product safety standards are ensured in line with their respective EU legislation. Application of harmonised standards or other technical specifications remain voluntary. However, laws and regulations may refer to standards and even make compliance with them compulsory. If a product is compliant with a standard that is referenced in the European Union Official Journal, it is presumed to be safe.
Product safety needs to be ensured in every stage of the product manufacturing process, as unsafe causes can occur at any phase. Potential causes of a product being unsafe include:
- Design defect. A design defect occurs when a product is designed with potential danger. This could happen, for example, if a product was created with a sharp edge and no protection, or if a child’s toy was designed with lead paint.
- Manufacturing defect. This kind of defect occurs during the manufacturing phase. The parts of any product need to be developed and assembled correctly, otherwise it could become a hazard for injury.
- Failure to warn. Manufacturers are required to include a warning if the product has potential danger or could cause a hazard to the consumer. For example, flammable warnings or choking hazard warnings.
The European Commission announced that in the second quarter of 2021 it would revise the General Product Safety Directive (GSPD), as part of its regulatory fitness and performance program (REFIT). The directive requires manufacturers to place only safe products onto the market. It also requires Member States to conduct market surveillance activities in order to ensure that producers and distributors comply with their obligations.
Many aspects of the directive’s provisions do not apply to harmonised standards as they are governed by the Market Surveillance Regulation and sector-specific harmonising legislation. In 2013, the Commission attempted a general overhaul and simplification of the system by proposing a package of two new regulations: one on consumer product safety and the other on market surveillance. This was blocked in the Council due to a disagreement between Member States over the provisions on the country of origin labelling. A new Market Surveillance and Compliance Regulation was adopted in 2019. It was expected to resolve some of the urgent issues in market surveillance, especially relating to online sales.
Still, the 2013 package was being called for adoption repeatedly. In June 2020, the Commission published a combined evaluation roadmap impact assessment on the revision of the General Product Safety Directive. The initiative was expected to tackle the following problems:
- Product safety linked to new technologies, in particular to do with connected devices and artificial intelligence
- Product safety in online sales channels, such as platforms and online marketplaces
- Insufficient effectiveness of product recalls
- Overly complex market surveillance rules and lack of appropriate instruments and resources on the part of the national market surveillance and customs authorities; the General Product Safety Directive will additionally have to be brought in line with the new market surveillance regulation
- Inconsistent application of product safety rules for food-imitating products
On 25 November 2020, the Parliament’s Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection adopted an own-initiative report on addressing product safety in the single market. Following a debate, Parliament adopted a resolution on this date. The resolution urged the Commission to update and establish aligned market surveillance rules for both harmonised and non-harmonised products placed on the market; whether offline or online, and to make them fit for the digital age. It calls for updated product safety rules that would tackle the challenges of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and 3D printing.
It encourages the Commission and Member States to increase the resources and expertise of their market surveillance authorities, including through the Multiannual Financial Framework single market programme. It also called on the Commission to explore the option of requiring non-EU economic operators to designate an economic operator in the EU for non-harmonised products that EU market surveillance authorities could contact in case of product safety issues.
Earlier this month, the European Commission published its 2020 annual report on Safety Gate, a system used to track and report product safety issues in the EU. Some of the key takeaways were:
- National authorities in the EU submitted 2,253 alerts for dangerous products, with a significant increase in November and December
- 26% of alerts referred to products sold online. While this represents the wider shift in purchasing habits across Europe as a result of the pandemic, it is recognised as posing additional challenges for product safety monitoring
- As in previous years, toys are the most notified product category, making up 27% of notifications
- 2020 saw a particular focus of PPE and other COVID-19 related products not operating as they are supposed to, making up 9% of total reports
- There are increasing numbers of marketplaces committing to the “Product Safety Pledge” which means that they will not sell products listed on Safety Gate on their platforms
- The European Commission has revamped the Safety Gate website, to make it simpler to locate alerts and more user-friendly to ensure consumers are able to access up to date information on product safety issues
Ensuring product safety is of paramount importance for every stage of the product manufacturing process. It is always imperative to ensure that measures are taken when considering safety and preventing the injury of consumers. The EU Product Safety Awards are a great celebration of product safety. This year they are back again after debuting in 2019. Gold, Silver and Bronze awards as well as a “special mention” were given to four small and medium enterprises and four large businesses excelling in the safety of child care products in 2019. The 2021 focus is on protecting the safety of vulnerable consumer groups and combining safety and new technologies. Applications are open now and close on 30th April and the awards will be presented on 23rd September. You can learn more here.