On the 21st January the UK Government announced the launch of the new Office for Product Safety and Standards to “further enhance the UK’s world leading product safety system and give consumers the highest levels of protection.” This is desperately needed and long overdue. Examples of the failure in the product safety system are endless, so now is the time for change. A handful of organisations have been campaigning tirelessly on behalf of consumers and for reasons of public safety. One of these organisations is the London Fire Brigade (LFB) whose Total Recalls campaign continues to focus on the shortcomings of the fire safety regime relating to white goods. One key aspect of their campaign, which began five years ago, was a call for change in the way fridge freezers are manufactured.
Appliances in our homes are designed and built to meet the requirements of British Standards. Those standards include tests for performance and safety. Sometimes the standards are lacking. In fact, the United Kingdom’s formal objection to the harmonised standard has still not been resolved. A harmonised standard is an agreed standard that provides a benchmark to which products are made “to demonstrate that products, services, or processes comply with relevant EU legislation.” The consequences of fires involving fridge freezers are often devastating and some of the warning signs that have not been heeded are highlighted below.
Tragically, in November 2010 Santosh Benjamin Muthiah was killed as a result of a fire originating in a Beko fridge freezer which broke out when he and his family were asleep. Leigh Day represented his wife and two children, who survived the fire. The coroner’s in-depth Prevention of Future Deaths Report highlighted the wide ranging issues relating to the dangers of refrigeration appliances and the shortcomings of the product safety system.
Commenting on the issues highlighted by the coroner Andrew Walker, Jill Paterson, partner in Leigh Day’s Consumer Law and Product Safety Team, said "The changes could potentially overhaul consumer product safety regulation. They put the power back in to the hands of consumers and stop manufacturers from keeping their problems secret." Regrettably, the changes Jill hoped would be implemented have still not come to fruition.
Horrifyingly, in September 2011 six members of the Kua family, who lived in a semi-detached house in Neasden, London, died as a result of a fire originating from a Whirlpool chest freezer. Her Majesty’s Coroner who presided over the inquiry, touching the death of five children and their mother, concluded the fire started because of the failure of a capacitor in the freezer and that “had the compressor been housed in a pressed steel compartment it is likely the fire would not have reached the insulation. The fire did reach the insulation and was fueled by it - it spread upstairs where the family were.” Sonia Gardens LFB press release. The coroner wrote to the British Standards Institute with his concerns.
In 2011 the London Fire Brigade felt so concerned about the numbers of injuries and deaths caused by fires originating in refrigeration appliances that they initiated research to provide crucial evidence of the issues involved. That research was published in May 2012 and provided clear, irrefutable evidence of the dangers when refrigeration appliances catch fire. It was the LFB’s view that the standard for refrigeration appliances BS EN 60335-2-24 was insufficient.
In December 2012, the environment agency published their research on the flammability of fridge insulation which concluded that it is “highly flammable.” Flammability of fridge insulation foam
In May 2014 Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for the City of Newcastle upon Tyne wrote to the manufacturer of a fridge freezer that was involved in a fire which killed Anthony Lapping. The coroner noted “Insulation material within the fridge freezer caused an extremely rapid development of the fire.” She stated that, “In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.” Her specific concerns were:
- “Opportunities to escape from the fire and from the effects of Carboxyhaemoglobin were significantly reduced due to the rapid spread of the fire.”
- “The rapidity of the spread was attributed to the insulation material used in a Hotpoint fridge freezer.”
- “There is a clearly identified risk of future deaths if manufacturers do not address the risks posed by the highly flammable nature of the insulation material used in the manufacture of kitchen equipment (fridge freezers) in common use by the public at large.”
- An urgent review of the manufacturing process and the use of appropriate insulation materials in fridge freezers is required.
You can read the coroner’s full report and the manufacturer’s response: Anthony Lapping Prevention of Future Deaths Report
Whilst, on this occasion, the fire did not start because of a fault in the fridge freezer the coroner was so concerned by how rapidly the fire developed because of the insulation foam in the appliance that he wrote to the manufacturer. Whilst some manufacturers may say that it is not their problem if the fire didn’t start because of a fault in their product, I would draw their attention to the Furniture and Furnishings Regulations 1988. Prior to this legislation fires in upholstered furniture such as settees and armchairs, also filled with insulation, were more prolific. The fires did not start because of any problem with the sofa but their insulation significantly added to the fire. The regulation set a standard for construction to improve fire resistance and try to prevent the insulation igniting.
Subsequently other safety organisations have consistently highlighted and campaigned for change to the standard to which refrigeration appliances are constructed. Electrical Safety First, a charity that campaigns for electrical safety, have supported the campaign: Electrical Safety First fridge freezer safety advice The BBC’s Watchdog Test House undertook research with the London Fire Brigade at the Building Research Establishment. Their video shows that dramatic difference in the development of a fire in a fridge freezer with a plastic back compared to one made with a metal back. LFB fridge freezer fire: Metal vs Plastic
The police have reported that the cause of the fire at Grenfell Tower is believed to be a Hotpoint fridge freezer. The Government’s response to that states that “The safety of consumers is paramount.” Government responds to police identification of Hotpoint fridge freezer involved in Grenfell Tower fire
It has been demonstrated, evidenced and tragically witnessed that fires involving refrigeration appliances are often catastrophic. The rapid fire development along with intense heat and highly toxic smoke produced, when they burn, are lethal.
The travesty is that since 2012 the progress to change the standard has been agonisingly and unacceptably slow. The dangers presented by white goods are not going away and we can only hope that the unacceptable risk, that of fire, defective household products present will be treated with the same seriousness of hazards associated with children’s products or medical products. Fire kills, fire is indiscriminate. It does not only endanger the life of one, but risks the lives of many.
Thankfully there is a glimmer of light at the end of this painfully long tunnel, in that some manufacturers are taking on the changes to cover the flammable insulation, in order to prevent it igniting so easily and burning with such uncontrollable ferocity.
A research campaign from consumer group Which? further highlights the issue following their own test results.
Additionally, a number of online retailers now note the refrigerator’s backing material in their appliance specification page. This thankfully gives the consumer the information they need to make an informed, safer, purchase with the descriptions of the refrigerator’s backing material provided, which include metal, foil or aluminium laminate rather than (non-fire retardant) plastic.
The launch of the new Office for Product Safety and Standards to “further enhance the UK’s world leading product safety system and give consumers the highest levels of protection” is hopefully a positive step. It really does need to take the initiative, be positive and proactive. The time is now.