The Grenfell Tower disaster will have innumerable repercussions. The causes of this tragedy and the circumstances surrounding the fire will be examined and debated for a long time to come in the hope of avoiding any such horrific incidents in the future. Along with looking at how the fire spread, the design and construction of the building, compliance with regulations, prevention and safety measures, and the emergency response, product safety is likely to be one of the many focus points given that a Hotpoint fridge freezer was identified by police as the initial cause of the fire. That is likely to provoke intense scrutiny of these kind of appliances.
Take for example last week’s call to manufacturers by UK industry watchdog Which? to “keep households safe” and stop making non-flame retardant plastic-backed fridges, freezers and fridge/freezers.
Whilst the aim is indisputable, the recommendation has the potential to cause confusion amongst both consumers and manufacturers.
From a consumer’s perspective, there are mixed messages. On the one hand is a recommendation not to buy appliances with a non-flame retardant backing. At the same time, Which? are not recommending that consumers need to replace any such appliance they currently own. How does a consumer judge how best to respond to that? Which? counsels that “refrigerator fires are rare” and that July 2015 research into government fire data found that only 7% of fires caused by faulty appliances were caused by fridge freezers, fridges or freezers. But if you have such an appliance at home, could you be deemed to have known of, or even accepted, the potential risk and could that jeopardise any claim you might seek to make if there was a fire? Would you be justified in seeking to return or replace your appliance? And leaving aside the legal niceties, at the end of the day can you comfortably continue to use your appliance?
From a manufacturer’s perspective, Which? believes that the relevant British Standard is deficient and inadequate, and asks manufacturers to stop production and support a new standard. Relevant manufacturers have been ‘named and shamed’. But the fact remains that all cold appliances on the market should meet current Standards. As a general principle it will no doubt be of concern that a manufacturer cannot avoid very public censure even where their product meets the relevant standard. And now that the risks of these appliances have been aired, what action should manufacturers take. If they don’t comply would they be deemed to have disregarded a known risk? How far do they go: stop production, or institute some form of recall? Would that in itself be seen as accepting liability by seemingly responding to the challenge to “get dangerous products out of people’s homes quickly”.
Extensive and heated discussion has been provoked by the report. That is of course to be welcomed if it helps to clarify how best to respond.
Longer term, if standards in the UK are changed, products manufactured for the EU market may no longer be allowed in the UK. Another cross-border trading headache to add to Brexit.