Safety guard: Office for Product Safety & Standards chief Graham Russell reflects on agency’s first year
The Office for Product Safety & Standards is one of a number of government bodies springing up to help prepare the UK for life outside the EU. Beckie Smith meets its chief executive Graham Russell
Graham Russell knows all about hitting the ground running. The chief executive of the Office for Product Safety and Standards, which is part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was given precious little time to set up the regulator, which is now just a couple of months past its first birthday.
“The biggest challenge was that the ministers were very clear that they wanted us to make an impact from day one,” he says. “We didn’t have a period of ‘let’s get set up and then when we’re ready we’ll start’.”
Last summer the OPSS published its first delivery plan, setting out its goals: namely to be a transparent regulator that makes evidence-based decisions and, in so doing, protects consumers and supports international trade. Simply put, Russell says, the primary purpose of the office is to “make sure that consumers in the UK have confidence in the safety of the products they buy”.
Such a function has existed for a long time but has historically been the responsibility of local authority trading standards departments. The OPSS was brought in not to replace trading standards, but to support frontline officers and step in where more clout is needed.
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Russell’s own background is in trading standards, and he has also led several regulatory bodies – including helping to set up the Local Better Regulation Office. He says three things led government to decide national capacity was needed to support those local bodies.
The first was a series of what Russell calls, somewhat ominously, “events”. One that had a “big and significant impact for people” was a defect – discovered in 2015 – in tumble dryers manufactured by Whirlpool. The defective dryers were sold over an 11-year period and led to at least 750 fires, some of them fatal.
The coroner in an inquest into two deaths resulting from one of those fires described Whirlpool’s approach to dealing with the scandal as an “obstacle” to finding ways to prevent fires in future, saying the company had been “defensive and dismissive”. In January 2018 the BEIS Select Committee branded the manufacturer’s response to reports of the defect “woeful” and said the incident bolstered “a strong case for a single national product safety agency”.
“It started to be seen as somewhere that a local authority didn’t necessarily have equivalence in dealing with a multinational company in terms of scientific and technical understanding and ability to deal with quite a complex issue,” Russell says.
“We see regulation not as something that inhibits success, but as a driver of success”
The OPSS began looking into the Whirlpool issue as soon as it was set up, and a review it published this month instructed the company to set up more rigorous quality assurance and improve its risk management.
Another event that lent urgency to the office’s creation was the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed 72 people and was found to have started in or near a fridge-freezer. The OPSS has examined the model to determine whether it’s a risk in future.
“The way that fire developed and had such a horrendous effect on human life, I think has also made us all rightly think again about making sure we’re doing enough, particularly for the most vulnerable people,” Russell says.
These high-profile tragedies ran alongside a steady undercurrent of public worry over the safety of products such fireworks and fancy dress costumes, which he says has “led to questions about whether the current system is adequate”.
However important these domestic challenges, though, Russell concedes that it is impossible to talk about how the office came to be without mentioning Brexit.
After Brexit, EU product safety regulations will be transferred into domestic law. Nevertheless, Russell says, “Questions were being asked about whether a system that was solely local authority based could deliver the kind of assurance that was needed.”
Being part of the EU also gives UK regulators access to useful tools such as a Europe-wide database of unsafe products, the Rapid Exchange of Information System – or Rapex for short.
BEIS has spent the last two years building a system to share data with its European colleagues in case the UK can no longer access Rapex post-Brexit.
It is also working on systems to give UK consumers more information about the products they buy. “Our target is not just to replace European systems, but to move to the forefront of those systems,” Russell says. “Of course, that’s not going to happen overnight.”
Asked whether the office would have been set up had the UK not voted to leave the EU, Russell says he can’t answer. What he can say is there were certainly pressing reasons to set it up regardless of Brexit.
The development of new technologies was another driver of the OPSS’s creation. “The goods we buy today are not the goods we were buying 10 years ago and probably won’t be the goods that we’re buying in 10 years’ time – and the way that we buy them isn’t the same,” he says, noting that most white goods are now bought online.
Technology also offers opportunities. The Internet of Things, for example, could enable household appliances to notify their owners when safety checks are needed, Russell says. “Things like how we use data, how we connect things together, offer some big prospects,” he observes.
Regulators must therefore arm themselves with scientific knowledge to tackle these developments, he says. To this end, the OPSS is equipped with expertise in fields from electrical and product engineering to chemicals, behavioural insights and consumer behaviour.
“What we’re trying to do with setting up the office is not to replace local authority trading standards enforcement, because that’s critical, but to back it up with understanding, science, technology and capacity to engage with big business, deal with issues and ensure confidence for consumers and for business,” Russell says.
“Our target is not just to replace European systems, but to move to the forefront of those systems. Of course, that’s not going to happen overnight”
That technical expertise bolsters the regulator’s authority because it means conversations with innovative businesses happen “on equal terms”, he says. “We’re very privileged in the UK to have some world class businesses creating world class products and we want those products to be safe.”
The office’s focus on innovation ties in with the government’s industrial strategy, which aims to drive up productivity and help UK businesses compete globally.
“We see regulation not as something that inhibits that success, but as a driver of that success. When people are competing in some of the tougher markets, they need to know that the confidence they get from UK regulators is going to be respected internationally,” Russell says.
As the regulator strives for evidence-based policy, it has also commissioned a great deal of its own research. Some of this is into consumer behaviour because, as Russell points out, “safety is partly about the product but it’s also about how we interact with that product”.
This research will inform how the office addresses challenges such as how to convince more people to register products they buy to make it easier to recall them. “You can spend a long time trying to persuade people to do something they don’t do, or you can find clever ways of addressing the same outcome,” he says. “For me, our efforts are better spent on those clever methods.”
The OPSS’s work “ranges from one tiny business dealing with one tiny issue to international trade”, Russell says. “The point we would make is there’s no trivial issue when it comes to product safety.”
In its first year, the OPSS has stepped in to handle concerns about the levels of harmful chemicals in a popular children’s toy, and to make sure toxic cosmetics weren’t being imported after asbestos was detected in some makeup products sold in the United States.
It’s also conducted an inquiry into gas fittings in reconditioned camper vans and agreed to gather evidence on firework safety. The largest petition to reach parliament in 2018 was a call to ban the sale of fireworks to the public – at the time of going to press, nearly 300,000 people had signed it.
Although the office works closely with industry, Russell stresses that he has no qualms about using its enforcement powers. Manufacturers and retailers are responsible for ensuring the products they sell are safe, and for monitoring them after they’ve been sold to ensure they stay that way.
“If we find evidence that people have been cavalier with that, that they haven’t taken the right precautions, if they haven’t got the appropriate checks in place, we have no hesitation in taking action.”
But his hope is that in most cases, it won’t come to that. His aim is to prevent harm, rather than wait until people have been hurt to act.
The office also runs safety campaigns, and is working with charities and lobby groups to make sure they are seen. It calculated that two million people saw its campaign last year on firework safety thanks to groups like the RSPCA and Mumsnet that helped to promote it.
He must know, though, that his chosen field often gets a bad rap. Has anyone given him a hard time about health and safety gone mad? “Since I’ve done this job – which is just over a year – not once,” he says. Laughing, he adds: “Maybe people are too polite to say that to me.”
Despite tabloid protestations about ’elf and safety, in reality, “when it comes to the safety of goods in their homes, people have very high expectations,” Russell explains. People’s tolerance for defective products – especially those that could endanger them – is very low.
Products the OPSS regulates include toys, furniture and children’s clothing. “These are not products that people think are going to put their lives at risk.”
But when they things don’t work as they’re meant to, people can get hurt or worse. Russell has read the coroners’ reports.
“What motivates me is that this is about protecting people – particularly the most vulnerable people. I think that’s what drives a lot of people in this area,” he says.
“Every incident is a real issue for the people involved, and some of those things have tragic consequences.”
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