Page last updated at 15:53 GMT, Sunday, 6 September 2009 16:53 UK

What happens in a product testing lab?

By Kevin Peachey
Consumer affairs reporter, BBC News

Audio testing
Testing televisions is a highly technical process

With the lights turned down low and a James Bond movie playing on a top-of-the-range widescreen television, this might seem like an ideal evening in.

But there are actually 10 televisions lined up, and Casino Royale is just one of a series of short clips including footage of snooker and steam trains being played to a panel of specialist viewers.

Welcome to the TV torture chamber - a lab in an unassuming business park unit in Milton Keynes where the latest devices are put through their paces.

Forty members of staff at Intertek, including engineers, statisticians and ergonomists, are checking goods for reliability, environmental compliance and usability.

They quite literally check if all the buttons on a remote control are worthwhile and easy to understand.

"Products can cause a big headache when they become more versatile. We once had a [digital tv] box with a 140-page instruction manual," says principal scientist Roy Brooker, who has worked in the lab for more than 20 years.

Henry (left) and Roy Brooker
Roy Brooker controls Henry the simulator

It is not just televisions that go under the microscope, anything from babies' buggies to birdbox cameras are tested here.

Spinach from Germany is dried on plates for two hours during an 11-hour standard test of dishwasher performance, which is repeated five times per device.

In a separate lab, children are filmed to show how they react to new toys, to find out which age range is attracted to certain toys.

Meanwhile Roy introduces Henry - the head and torso simulator. The duo test the top volumes of personal music players, a welcome check for anyone who has been on public transport and had their journeys ruined by the noise from a fellow passenger's headphones.

Specialist

Intertek, which recently announced a leap in half-year pre-tax profits to £88m, has been promoting its testing services to companies which might previously have made checks themselves.

For business and consumers alike, safety remains top of the priority list when a product is ready to hit the shelves. Or at least it should do.

A manufacturer's reputation can be hit for years by a safety scare. Following the recall of millions of Chinese-made toys in 2007, tougher new safety legislation was introduced in the US and the EU.

Yet the number of products listed on the Rapex rapid-alert database of potentially dangerous or faulty products in the EU continues to grow.

In just one week at the end of August, products withdrawn from sale included:

  • A wooden rattle that could come apart and choke a child
  • A food mixer that could cause an electric shock
  • An inflatable guitar that posed a chemical risk
  • A child's sweatshirt with drawstrings that brought strangulation fears

Felt-tip pens, dolls, jewellery and tea lights are all on the list, but it has been relatively recent safety notices involving cars that have brought the subject more into focus for many consumers, according to Beena Tanna, of Intertek.

In August, Toyota, the world's biggest carmaker, announced it was recalling almost 690,000 cars made in China because of faulty electrical window switches.

The previous month, rival Japanese carmaker Honda announced it was recalling 440,000 vehicles in the US because of an airbag defect.

Awareness

But how aware are consumers of safety issues in general, and how much do they take them into account when they buy products in the shops?

Dangerous sandwich toaster
Businesses' reputations can be hit by safety scares

"People often do not look for safety marks in the UK. They assume that if they are on sale in a High Street shop, they are OK," said Mrs Tanna.

Even if shoppers do look for a safety mark, do they know what it actually means?

The Trading Standards Institute (TSI) - which speaks for trading standards departments across the UK - is calling for a wholesale review of the CE marking system.

It says that consumers commonly misinterpret this as a safety or quality mark when its primary function is a stamp allowing free movement of goods across the EU.

If used properly the CE mark is printed on a product by a manufacturer to indicate that it meets EU rules. In the case of electrical equipment and toys these include essential safety requirements. Yet, many experts suggest the scheme is open to abuse.

The TSI has also been calling for data to be collected again that reveals the causes of accidents for which injuries require hospital treatment.

Between the 1970s and 2002, a database with information from 18 hospitals was used to spot accident trends ranging from scalds to choking cases. It proved to be expensive at the time and was withdrawn by the then-Department of Trade and Industry as part of a "re-focus of department priorities".

Now the Department of Health has asked the South West Public Health Observatory (SWPHO) to conduct a pilot project that would see some of this data collected again.

In basic terms, SWPHO is trialling a system that would add to the records already kept on computers in hospitals' Accident and Emergency departments.

It would allow staff to record how an accident happened, what products were involved and what type of activity was taking place. For example, explaining that a child broke his or her wrist when jumping on a mini trampoline at an organised party.

Any search for information on accidents involving trampolines would then reveal the incident and the number of others like it.

SWPHO will report on the project to the Department of Health in April 2010.



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EU plans tougher toy safety rules
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