Product safety podcast – Interview with Jeremy Opperer

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Welcome to this Maze podcast. I’m Gail Greatorex of Product Safety Solutions and this is an interview I did with Dr Jeremy Opperer from Exponent in the UK while we were attending International Product Safety Week in Brussels last November.

Jeremy is a highly sought-after product safety consultant and trainer. The podcast covers hazard assessment, communicating with consumers and four key steps to managing risk.

You can listen to the podcast here or via iTunes. The full transcript appears below.

I began by asking Jeremy how he approaches a safety assessment on clients’ products.

Assessing products for potential hazards

Jeremy:      We are often faced with the challenge of how you address safety issues which have not yet happened, especially when it’s an innovative product where there is no guidance available; there’s nothing like the product on the market, so there’s no historical injury data, the standards may not apply, and the regulators are still catching up with the issues of the day.

Gail:           As is often the case.

Jeremy:      So in that world where we operate, it’s trying to understand a lot about human safety. If we’re focussing on safety, you know, how is it that people can get injured? And try to identify if there’s a potential for any of those injuries to be present in the product. And a great example is if you looked at the way that individuals can get injured – there’s lacerations, and you get cut, or broken bones, or choking, or radiation poisoning and that kind of thing.

We’re sitting in a nice little room with some water bottles here – you wouldn’t normally consider radiation being an issue with water, or a water bottle. But you would look maybe at a choking hazard for a cap, or a potential choking hazard, or sharp edges. So you can start to narrow it down.

You can also look at similar types of products that have been in the market, even if not the one that you’ve got now because it’s so innovative; but it will be an iteration of something that existed before, and then you can refer back to what else has been on the market and how safety has been performed . . . how safety was involved there.

Gail:           I think sometimes looking at a recalls database, which are readily available now. It’s a good opportunity to actually sift through those and see if any of the products are similar to the one that you’re looking at, and what the hazard was that came out of that.


With very new products we’re looking for injury data, there’s recall data; but also complaints data. There’s several sources of information that are available to anybody, they just need to know where to look.

And you know, the challenge – the next step to that, once you look at all this existing data, whatever is available – is then taking some steps to anticipate what else could happen.

I bring up the radiation example for bottles of water– because I’ve got a bottle of water in my hand which makes me think of this – you wouldn’t normally look at radiation, but then after the disaster in Japan a few years ago with the Fukushima Plant, people started realising products shipped from Japan may actually have been exposed to radiation; so food products. All of a sudden, we didn’t normally look at that, now in the packaging you might have something to address. So it’s not just looking at the obvious hazards; but then is there any other way that hazards could enter into the product. It’s starting to think a little more creatively.

Gail:           And also to not rest on your laurels either. To revisit the product and the scenario on a regular basis, even if you’ve done your due diligence in the first instance.

Consumer behaviour

Jeremy:      And this ties into the other presentation that we had yesterday, where I was talking about how are you communicating with consumers to effect their behaviour?

We were looking at risk – there’s the one side, the hazard side of the risk equation; but you have to be exposed to that hazard for there to be a risk, and there has to be a probability for that hazard to create an actual injury. That sometimes is down to the consumer’s behaviour, and the consumer behaviour patterns will change over time.

So if you have a new product on the market, when it’s first introduced people are getting used to it. Then over time cultural interpretation of the product, and familiarity of the product, and innovative use in conjunction with other products, starts to come into play. So what existed in the realm of product safety for that product when it came to market may change, because the consumer’s view of it will have changed, and the use of it.

Gail:           Someone might look at this and think, ‘Well, I’m a bit bored with using it this way. Let’s try using it a different way.’ For which it was never intended.

Jeremy:      Well, there’s an example of the slow cooker, in one of the presentations – where a slow cooker is a home kitchen appliance to cook food over a long period of time at a decent level of heat, but not too hot; and now it’s connected to the Internet of Things that can be controlled remotely with someone that’s not even in the same country, let alone house. You know, they could be anywhere they have internet access, they can control this device. And so that’s taking a product and then creating more different use out of it, just because we can, and it creates more convenience.

Gail:           You mentioned the ‘Internet of things’. People might not be familiar with that term.

Jeremy:      So I have to say it was very good to see at this product safety conference that we’re at, discussing the Internet of Things and taking a lot of time to go through that. I don’t think there’s a clear definition yet from what I’ve understood. It depends on who you talk to; but the way I understand it, it’s every physical object having the opportunity to be connected, electronically, to every other physical object that is relevant for it to be connected to. We have different websites connected to each other; and now products can connect to each other.

And the example is the slow cooker, which now through Wi-Fi can connect to your mobile phone, which can also connect to your computer, which may be connected to your refrigerator to know what ingredients you’ve got to help you make your recipe; and everything’s talking to each other, and you may not need to be involved in that. I know there was discussion at another conference I went to; the great example is there are refrigerators that know how much milk you have, and then when you run low on milk it can reorder it for you. So it’s that kind of a thing.

Gail:           And we had a good example yesterday of smoke alarms as well, where this sort of intelligent smoke alarm can recognise when it’s only steam and avoid the risk of false alarms and therefore minimise the chance of people turning them off because they’re just bothered by the false alarms.

Jeremy:      That affects behaviour.

Gail:           Absolutely it’s a behavioural thing. In terms of the Internet of Things, it can let people know if you’re not home and the smoke alarm goes off, you can get a message; but it might also be connected to the fire brigade for that matter.

Jeremy:      And they also showed a great picture of a little city with lots of different buildings, and this web of all these different smoke alarms kind of connected in a way so that if you have an issue in your apartment, for example, everyone else in your apartment – if everything’s connected – could know that there’s an issue. Or even the building across the street. And it is relevant for them because, depending on what the issue is, it could affect their premises; they may need to make way for a fire engine that needs to come through, or whatever.

So there’s a lot of great value that’s going to come out of this, but also there’s completely new behaviours and new ways of interacting with products that we were familiar with before, and in our world of product safety it’s something to consider.

Gail:           Product safety is an ever evolving field of work, and it is a challenge to try and stay ahead of things, and anticipate what some of the issues are.

Jeremy:      That is what we get paid to do.

Factoring safety into design

Product safety podcast

Jeremy Opperer at International Product Safety Week, Brussels

Gail:           So to what extent do you think manufacturers and product designers are stopping to consider human behaviour when they’re designing their products?

Jeremy:      That’s a really good question. The reality is in my experience they’re driven very much by the marketing departments, and/or design departments that are looking to just push new goods out there.

They want to do it as quickly and as cheaply as possible, and for many of them they see the safety and quality teams as the sales prevention force.

In that regard I think it’s something that is not seen – in some businesses – in a positive light; it’s seen as obstructive. They don’t want to think about it. They feel that they’re compliant, it’s good enough; or they feel that this is an issue they’ll deal with when the product is manufactured and they’ve got something to test.

The other aspect to that is when people hear about safety, and they think it’s addressed through risk assessment. They think of that as a very complicated, laborious, time consuming, costly process. I’m also dealing with a lot of organisations that are coming up to speed; so they have the challenges, and they need to change their view.

When an organisation’s already in a good position I’m engaging with them in a different way, but I definitely think that many organisations out there don’t look at safety as a critical issue, and something they need to worry about at an early stage.

‘That’s what the standards are for’, ‘That’s what the testing is for’, that they’re ‘paying for’; and it’s trying to work with them to get them to understand that it doesn’t have to be costly, it doesn’t have to be time consuming, it doesn’t even need to involve external parties as much as they think; it’s changing their behaviour and their perspective.

So then, in terms of anticipating their consumers’ behaviour and then taking that extra step, instead many organisations are overwhelmed by the complexity of that, because they’re infinite behaviours. ‘How can you predict what people will do?’ With just a little bit of training and a little bit of practice they can very quickly start to read what people might do with their product. What does their product allow consumers to do?

Gail:           It’s also important for the designers to work together with the marketing people, because if the marketing people are saying that the product can do more than it was intended to do . . . The marketing guys should be the ones who are familiar with human behaviour and how people might use it.

Jeremy:      Should be.

Gail:           Unless they’re just about the sale. But ideally you want to have your product so that the marketing is aligned with the product’s capabilities. So it should be part of the process in putting a product to market that you think through, not only the intended use, but the potential uses beyond that.

Four key steps

Jeremy:      The process of bringing it to market, and thinking beyond the intended use, the foreseeable use; but also the communication is absolutely critical.

I run a lot of training courses, and also speak at a lot of conferences; and although I didn’t have it on this here at the International Product Safety Conference, I didn’t present it this time; I presented previously this one slide that I always highlight as one of the most important slides: When dealing with risk at an early stage, proactively, there are four key steps.

First, risk perception. So it’s first perceiving, taking a step and just having someone, or a group of people, sit back and think what could be things that might worry us? That’s the start. You know, you brainstorm all of the fanciful, wild things, whatever comes to mind in the first instance; and that’s where you maybe consider foreseeable use, maybe you think of abuse, maybe intended use? Whatever it is.

Gail:           And to me that’s the fun part.

Jeremy:      It is the fun part. It’s creative and you’re not restricted in that. The next part is the risk assessment, where you then go and actually consider, are any of these things relevant? Can we test for them? Can we not? Where are there questions?

So you think about the crazy things that people are going to do with it; like should we be wary about radiation and water bottles? No. Oh wait a second. What if it’s near a nuclear plant? And okay, we can test for that.

So after the perception you have the assessment, but then the next important bit is communication. So when you know that there are issues with the product, or even not issues with the product, it’s then getting everybody together – and that’s everybody, like you said; the marketing department, the designers, with the engineers, even with quality and manufacturing and logistics, and legal, and so on – every single person in the organisation that touches the product along the value chain – getting them around a table and just sharing the thoughts, and making sure you’re not missing anything.

Because then if you highlight, ‘Well actually this water bottle is absolutely safe, and you know we were just concerned about radiation, but it wasn’t a concern.’ Then someone might say, ‘We’re actually distributing water bottles for aid relief in this area, and it actually may be effected.’ So everyone then can make sure you’re on the same page, and worried about the same things and addressing the things.

And the final step is managing it. Once you communicate the risks it doesn’t go away, you have to have a process in place to make sure that all the good work you did early on carries through till the last product is used by the last

Effective communication

Gail:          And so managing that risk will ideally mean designing safety into the product. But if you then have some residual risk, after you’ve done your best to design the hazards out, then you might need to communicate those risks to the consumers by way of warnings; and you were speaking yesterday about the potential of consumers to actually receive the messages. And you were saying that they have to be ready to receive it.

Jeremy:      You know, it’s something that I just learned through this job.

There’s something very counter-intuitive.

You think if you’ve got a plain piece of paper with some written information on it, you might not notice it; but if you put it in big, bold letters, and it’s flashing at you, that you would definitely notice it and you would read that. In truth having something that’s very obvious, that’s very conspicuous, does not mean that it will actually get noticed; because we have this ability in our minds to filter out things that are not of interest, or relevant to us.

A great example is looking at websites. You know, when you go to one website or another there might be a flashing ad in a corner, or on the top, or on the side. I never notice those things, because you see them so often I know to tune those out. And I honestly have no idea what the last banner ad was.

Gail:           Or if you’re like me you’ll actually click on the ‘X’ just to make it go away.

Jeremy:      Yeah, and I have done that as well. Or just try and scroll it out of the way. So quite often – and there have been studies that show that obvious warnings and ways of communicating information by making things very obvious and multi-coloured, flashing…; it doesn’t attract the attention of people as we would expect. What drives it is people need to have an interest to seek that information out in the first place.

Gail:           I’ve also heard a session this week about how Millennials receive information. So I think that neither you or I are a Millennial, but I think they will be even better at filtering out that stuff that they don’t perceive as immediately relevant to them.

Jeremy:      I feel sorry for missing out on that great session I heard so much about. So I can’t speak for what they were presenting on, but just knowing some Millennials that I’ve come across, they are accessing and exposed to so much information that they are filtering things much more efficiently than I think we are. Because so much of this is still new to us when we see something, and we know it’s trying to get our attention, but they’ve grown up in it so it’s all background noise (to them).

And then there’s also, I think we’ve grown up in a cultural generation when safety has become more and more important and stressed; where I wouldn’t say it’s plateaued, but I feel we may have reached a bit of a steady state, to a point where governments, authorities, businesses having been talking about it seriously for quite a while, that it’s not unique.

We may seek it out, where that generation (Millennials) may not think to seek it out, because they don’t know that it’s an issue. It’s just the normal. And so their own due diligence may be lowered possibly, but this is my own speculation, you know. I have no data to back this up.

Gail:           Well again, the case of not resting on your laurels. If you’re a product developer or manufacturer who is looking to sell to a new generation you can’t necessarily rely on the standard provision of warnings in bold capital letters and bright red colours. You need to look at alternative mechanisms, and indeed research – it’s probably not too difficult – but make sure that your messaging is done in a current and effective way.

Jeremy:      So again, I’ve attended a number of different, but interesting and still connected conferences recently; one on electrical products in the UK, one on caps and closures in food packaging globally, another also in the automobile sector, and now this with general consumer products. And something that’s come up at a few of these; all of them actually have touched on the Internet of Things, but a few of them actually touched on how the Internet of Things – although it brings complexity to managing product safety and anticipating foreseeable use – it also creates a potentially unique solution to how we communicate.

One of the central mechanisms, or let’s say devices within the Internet of Things is our mobile phone – which kids and adults are glued to. And if every device that we have is connected to our Internet of Things, and our mobile phone is a means for connecting to the internet, so our mobile number, our email, will be known to all of these devices. If there’s a fault with a device that we have, such as a water bottle which has now been discovered to be tainted and needs to be recalled – and we looked at an example from a cap that I found of how to connect water bottles to the Internet of Things – if there’s a problem with that product you can get a message to your mobile phone.

So you get a text message, and it actually tells you. Or in an extreme case someone had suggested actually locking out your phone with a message you need to go through, if it’s a very urgent and serious issue; because it knows you’ve got this product, you need to read this.

Gail:           Don’t drink that water!

Jeremy:      Yeah, and as long as it’s not used too much, and it is for the exception, then it will capture attention. We don’t want to have to get warnings that we’re just blindly scrolling through and clicking through, like we do whenever we have to sign into a website; you have to hit terms and conditions, but no one ever reads those.

So if it doesn’t get to that point then it’s okay, but they’re understanding here’s a disruptive way to capture someone’s attention. I don’t know if it’s actually been tried, but it was a really good idea. But also it can stop operation of other devices; so your TV might not work, or other things. And it is quite an incredible way to reach (people).

Gail:           All right, well I think what we’ve talked about has shown us that there’s always something new to think about with product safety, and we’ve always got to be thinking through in terms of getting our message across. So let’s wrap it up there Jeremy. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me – it showed us lots of insight. Thank you

This interview was recorded in Brussels, Belgium, November 2016.

Dr Jeremy Opperer joined Exponent in 2016 in their Mechanical Engineering practice and is based in London. Prior to joining Exponent, Jeremy was the Technical Operations Director for Intertek’s European Product Assurance and Risk Assessment and Management group.

Exponent is a consulting firm that brings together more than 90 different disciplines to serve needs in engineering, science, business and regulation. It has offices across the USA as well as in Asia and Europe.

Mr Gene Rider who I interviewed in previous podcast is also now with Exponent.

Product safety podcast

Jeremy Opperer with Gail Greatorex

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