EU product safety rules are based on prevention rather than prohibition
FOR YEARS, ONE of the basic elements of a pencil case was also one of the most dangerous: the eraser.
“There were different problems created by different toys used by children,” says Alexander Schuster, assistant professor of law at Trinity College Dublin, “including those erasers you use for your pencil at school that looked like sweets that some young children were tempted to eat and choked to death as a result.
Schuster, specialist in European law and product liability, continues: “It was a huge trans-European problem. Europe more or less nipped this in the bud by introducing toy safety regulations and dealing with products that were killing children.
In countries like the US, where manufacturers’ obligations are less uniform than in the EU, hazardous products cause hundreds of thousands of injuries and deaths every year. In 2020, an estimated 198,000 toy-related injuries were treated in the United States, including nine deaths involving children under the age of 12.
Globally, product manufacturing industries generally self-regulate, picking and choosing which industry regulations to follow and which to freely interpret. The chairman of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission recently said that American consumers “often think that because it’s on the shelves, it’s been pre-approved by the government, which doesn’t is not the case”.
While EU intervention in the industries of its member states has added unpopular bureaucracy and bureaucracy in the past, such as in the fisheries sector, the pan-European standardization of product safety standards mandated by the EU has undoubtedly been a huge success.
“Globally, the EU zone would, in general, be known for the highest safety standards and the highest level of consumer protection in terms of global trade zones,” said David Conlan Smyth, President of the European Bar Association of Ireland, a specialist bar association for Irish lawyers who practice in the area of EU law.
The aim of the European Union has always been to ensure the highest possible protection of consumer rights through the adoption of various directives and legislation at EU level.
In Ireland we have become accustomed to this, but the fact that products sold in Ireland must be safe to use is not something that is taken for granted in a global context. If the products are unsafe, they may be banned from sale in the Irish market under the European Communities (General Product Safety) Regulations 2004.
“However, the European product safety philosophy is focused on prevention rather than prohibition,” explains TCD’s Alexander Schuster. “The EU regulates product safety mainly through what is called a framework directive, which is a general piece of legislation. The main obligation is for manufacturers to place only safe products on the market. »
Ireland has benefited from the legally enforced consistency of EU product safety standards since a set of regulations transposing EU law into Irish law was introduced in 2004. A key element of this legislation was the creation of an enforcement authority to oversee the area of product safety. Product Safety, now the National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC).
“The DCPC has a wide range of powers that it can use against manufacturers who have put unsafe products on the market,” Schuster said.
If a manufacturer fails to comply, the CCPC will step in and can either bring criminal proceedings against them or go to the High Court for an injunction to remove the product from the market.
Authorities such as the Irish CCPC in all 27 member states work together to ensure that product safety standards are met in the single market.
“Whether [a product] creates problems in more than one EU country, there is an obligation to notify the European Commission in Brussels under the RAPEX system,” says Schuster. “Essentially it is an integrated safety body within the European Union, where if there is a problem with a product on a pan-European or cross-border European basis, it alerts all the authorities of the 27 European states and they can take action if after investigation they find that the same product is also a problem.
Manufacturers must display their compliance with European directives with a CE mark on their products. Any product covered by a European directive must bear the CE marking. EU regulations even describe how the CE mark must be displayed on a product, including that it must be clearly affixed (adhered, glued or recessed) permanently to the product itself, or appear in the user’s manual. instructions or product packaging if it is impossible to affix to the product itself.
The bonus for consumers
While it is clear that the burden on manufacturers to comply with these regulations is significant, the benefits to consumers of the safety standards applied in the products we buy are significant. Products with additional risks such as bicycle helmets, reflective jackets, safety harnesses and even chemical hazard suits have very specific minimum safety requirements under EU law to ensure that no product legally sold in the EU imposes risk.
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Similarly, all electrical products, within certain voltage limits, sold in Ireland must meet specific safety standards in accordance with directives such as the EU Low Voltage Directive. These safety standards can look like hazard warnings on products such as “not for use in bathrooms” or more robust technical safety standards relating to product performance.
Other household items like furniture are also covered by EU safety standards. All furniture should only be made and repaired with materials, including coatings, foams and padding, that meet EU fire safety standards. Furniture products must pass the “cigarette test”: furniture materials are not at risk of igniting from a lit match or cigarette.
The toy industry is an industry where EU legislation has greatly enhanced consumer safety. Again, only toys that meet the minimum safety requirements of EU law can be sold in Ireland and other member states. In addition to carrying the CE mark, toys sold in the EU must not shatter or break easily, must not be made of materials that burn easily, and must be made of non-toxic materials. Toys that contain small parts must be marked as unsuitable for children under 36 months, and ride-on toys such as children’s bicycles and go-karts must have adequate brakes and lights if they can be used on public roads.
What can you do if a product is dangerous?
If you discover that a product is unsafe or appears to have a false CE mark, you have rights under Irish law with the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980. This means that if the product is a one-time fault and the fault is covered by law, you are usually entitled to a refund or replacement.
If you contact the manufacturer or retailer and the defect appears to be inherent in the product, contact CCPC to raise your concerns. Their consumer helpline is open 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday on 01 402 5555.
This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant program from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are those of the author. The European Parliament has no involvement or responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information see here.