Product safety podcast – Interview with Martin Rushton

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In this product safety podcast Gail Greatorex talks with Martin Rushton, Principal Advisor for Trading Standards and Product Safety at the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Martin has an extensive history of consumer product safety in the UK and New Zealand. As a representative of the New Zealand government, Martin also participates in Australian state and federal forums.

In this interview, Martin talks about key safety principles and gives some real life examples on how safety considerations can impact business.

Interview transcript

Gail: Martin, how long you have worked in consumer product safety?

Martin: Well I best start off by saying you can tell by my accent I’m not a native-born Kiwi – I actually originated from the UK. I’ve been in Trading Standards for longer than I would care to remember, probably heading for four decades.

I qualified in the north of England primarily as a weights and measures inspector and then over the years, particularly the growth years of the 80’s and 90’s the portfolio of duties has increased for us under the Trading Standards banner. We took on things like the consumer credit and also consumer product safety. So you could say consumer product safety has been part of my life since the mid 80’s really. I’ve seen a lot of changes over that time.

Gail: What is it that you enjoy about the work?

Martin: I guess for me there are a couple of things; one is the challenge. What I like about product safety compared with perhaps the elements of my background in the weights and measures is that you are not ever dealing with 100% certainty. Things are never black and white and so there is always the challenge of the new problem, the new risk, the new issue coming along, and trying to figure out the best way of mitigating the risk and the solution.

The other thing is I have never wanted for my career to be involved in simply making money or anything like that, not that that is necessarily a thing to criticise but I enjoy helping people and a profession in product safety fulfils that kind of desire.

Costs and challenges of safety and compliance

Gail: Some companies say that making their products safe and compliant with regulations costs too much, what do you say to those companies?

Martin: Certainly any company that is in it for the long haul (so I am talking about legitimate business) the legal compliance does come at a cost, but it’s a cost that needs to be borne by that business. It’s not something that can be avoided.

I think if you take a wider perspective of cost, when people are hurt with an unsafe product there is a cost to the individual in terms of a physical pain, there could be a financial cost associated with it, if it meant that person was unable to work.

In New Zealand for example, we have a no-fault compensation scheme where the government provides support for anyone injured in accidents – and that includes product safety related injuries – there is a cost to the public purse and certainly when we are doing a lot of our risk mitigation work we factor into it – what is the cost of that particular incident or issue.

‘It would be hard to get a minor abrasion from a chainsaw I would think.’

In some instances if something goes wrong – thinking here of something like a defective chainsaw for example – you are looking at an average injury cost in the several thousands and tens of thousands of dollars and that’s notwithstanding the fact that with something like a chainsaw injury, it tends to be severe. It’s not just an abrasion – it’s usually something pretty gruesome . . .

Ga­il: It would be hard to get a minor abrasion from a chainsaw I would think.

Martin: Very much so. And while businesses perhaps might have concerns about the cost of compliance, I think in product safety most of the legitimate businesses and proprietors understand, and I’ve never really found that much concern expressed about cost of compliance with product safety.

Gail: What do you think are the greatest challenges for business in complying with product safety regulations?

Martin: I think one thing that businesses face, regulators – and indeed consumers too – is the fact that we are able to purchase an ever-increasing range of products. We all want new and innovative products that do wonderful things for us to enhance our lives, but with that can come risks that may well not have been foreseen or have technology that’s not well understood.

You might find a new chemical, for example, or a new technology comes to market in a product in some way shape or form, but after a period of time things are found to be not so good with that product. But I guess that’s part and parcel of progress. Nobody necessarily wants to place an unsafe product on the market but on the other hand businesses face challenges in terms of being able to make sure that particularly cutting edge products are safe.

Gail: Is there advice you have on how to meet those challenges?

Martin: I think the one thing that we actively encourage in New Zealand is that we aren’t heavy handed regulators and we do strongly encourage dialogue, so anybody – be it that they are new to a business or thinking about a new product, I would encourage them to make contact with their regulator.

Not that we will tell them necessarily what they need to do, but we can have conversations that might steer them to the right sources about advice on technology or a compound or chemical. It’s much easier if you can deal with a product early in its life cycle and address the safety issues than be faced with the cost and drama that might go with a product that reaches a marketplace and consumers are using it then something goes wrong.

Designing safety into products

Gail: One of the best ways to ensure product safety is to design the safety into the product from the outset, that is to look for ways to eliminate any hazard at the design stage. It’s much better to do that than rely on consumer warnings, say. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Martin: I couldn’t agree more because if you don’t address safety at the design stage, then downstream if you’ve inadvertently or for whatever reason developed a product which has an inherent safety risk attached to it then there’s no way of mitigating that risk effectively.

We’ve been quite active in this design space. Again, one of the other benefits of a small country like New Zealand is that we can have conversations with key stakeholders, and one group of stakeholders we have identified is in academia.

We have one or two universities who have specialist design schools and I’m thinking here of Victoria University in Wellington and Auckland University of Technology. We’ve been having dialogue with lecturers who deal in the design space and it was interesting that in their curriculum, in their thinking, safety wasn’t given as much prominence as we would have thought.

What’s happened is the universities have invited us and we’ve been along and delivered lectures to Year Two design students. We’re putting out a message that in design you’re obviously trying to be creative and innovative and bring new products out, but don’t forget the safety element and have some cognisance of the potential safety risks and issues.

It’s going quite well – its early stages yet and hasn’t got to the stage where it’s part of the examinable material, but we feel good we’ve got that on the radar for academia.

Hopefully when these students graduate they will be taking an ingrained product safety message with them – when they’re designing their products they will be thinking about safety.

Gail: That sounds like a great initiative and perhaps one we can follow up on some time.

So, can you think of any particular examples that you can tell us about where hazard has been eliminated at the design stage?

Martin: Yes, there a couple that spring to mind. One is a very topical issue at the moment and that’s coin size button batteries. Although they’ve been around for decades now, about three or four years ago this product was identified as carrying an inherent risk.

Basically I came across it when someone at a conference raised the issue, I thought oh yes that would be a small-part choking hazard and I thought that would be the risk we were talking about. And partly it was, but the risk we are talking about are children (who are naturally inquisitive and explore the world by putting things in their mouth) and the button batteries. If they are lodged in the throat or inserted in the nose as children will do it can lead to very serious and even fatal consequences.

With the button battery the electric current that it generates develops a process of hydralisation and effectively destroys tissue. Damage can occur within as little as two hours, and after four hours you could be looking at fatality.

There have been cases in New Zealand, thankfully none that have reached fatality, but they usually require serious surgical intervention. There is a difficulty in designing the product in a different way because button batteries have to be that size and shape to power the devices they’re used in.

The design school of Victoria University came up with a way which was a really innovative fix that can be applied into the product without a lot of modification. As part of the batteries’ casing or coating they put in a substance that releases a particular dye. So if a child swallows it, the dye will turn their mouth pink when it’s activated with their saliva. So effectively if the parent or carer sees the pink saliva, then they can tell the child has swallowed a button battery and that gives that vital early warning that intervention is needed.

I think that’s a good example of where designers have picked up on an issue and worked to mitigate it. While you can always put warnings on products as part of risk mitigation, they’re often not enough.

The other case I was thinking about was an innovative sporting product that had been designed by a husband and wife team in New Zealand. It was a fold down net and you could kick or throw or propel a soccer ball, rugby ball, etc. at this net and it would rebound to help with motor skills.

It was fairly innovative and popular when brought to market, but unfortunately we had a small number of complaints where parents had found their kids had been climbing or leaning on them and getting their fingers caught in the hinge joint. There was one case of a partial finger amputation.

So the innovative idea was fine and when used correctly it didn’t present a risk, but concepts have been brought into law where as well as products being used for what they are intended, suppliers, designers and manufacturers are now having to mitigate risk where it could be reasonably foreseen that an item could be used in another particular way.

We were able to provide advice and the products were recalled. At that stage they had fortunately only been sold in New Zealand. The company was able to supply a retro fit locking device that negated the risk of entrapment and amputation.

Probably more crucially that small trader was on the cusp of marketing to America. The real risk to them there – had they marketed in the U.S where civil litigation is very different to New Zealand – it could have brought financial ruin, and it would have been on the back of further injuries.

That’s a great example of retro fitting a part to completely negate the risk. Safety is a journey in terms of a product’s lifespan – from concept though to delivery – and in every stage there are safety factors to consider.

Drugs in toys

Gail: That takes us to another question whether hazards are obvious. With some products like matches and knives everyone can see there is a hazard. Have you got any examples of hazards that are difficult to recognise?

Martin: I think that’s a fascinating point and one of the real challenges that we face in the product safety arena. When I first started – so if you go back three decades ago – most of the problems that were associated with consumer products were mostly centred around children’s toys and they were obvious – like sharp edges, small parts and then things like entrapment hazards on cots. Easy enough for the regulator to see and discern.

In the world we are in now we are faced with so much new technology, new chemicals coming onto the market that it’s not possible – by a simple visual or physical measuring or weighing type of examination – to determine whether that product is safe or not, and that’s a huge challenge.

‘When you are designing a product as well as designing safety in, make sure that your specification to your manufacturer is as tight as can be.’

I can think of some examples, and it doesn’t matter who you are (regulator or consumer) if it’s a chemical related risk you cannot in most cases tell by simply looking at the product – you have no idea. You have to subject it to one or more scientific tests which can in some instances are quite costly and complicated.

The example I’m thinking of is ‘Bindeez Beads’ which anybody in the product safety space that’s been around for ten years will instantly recognise. This was a very innovative toy – it won the toy of the year award I believe in the 2005 or 2007 Melbourne toy fair.

This toy comprised of little plastic spheres which were different colours that could be assembled into two- or three-dimensional shapes and then when sprayed with water a chemical reaction ensued and fused them together in a permanent state, so it was very popular, it was the must-have toy in that particular time.

Everything was fine until unbeknown to the company commissioning these products, the manufacturer in China altered one of the chemicals, not with malicious intent – it was probably a cost-cutting exercise.

They swapped one component compound for another that had ostensibly the same function. Now the problem was that these are small plastic beads the size of an apple pip and of course they are attractive to smaller children. And as I mentioned with the button battery there is always a risk of the kids putting things in their mouth.

What wasn’t foreseen that this particular substitute chemical was actually a pre-cursor to GHB, which is the acronym for the drug that is more widely known as the ‘date rape’ drug.

What then could and did happen in one or two instances these products were swallowed and once the bead had reached the child’s stomach, this chemical metamorphosed into GHB!

It was a very astute paediatrician in a Sydney hospital that had a couple of instances where children appeared with the same symptoms and he narrowed it down to this particular product, put two and two together and figured out we had a problem.

He was very quick in alerting the product safety regulatory community and this went viral around the world and certainly we in New Zealand knew within 24 hours we had a problem with this product.

In New Zealand it was a very defined supply chain – it was a single importer and a single company selling the product so we were able to stop sale very quickly with full cooperation and issued a product recall.

The moral behind that story – it’s an unforeseen problem and these latent, hidden risks are very hard for consumers to detect and to do anything about. I think the lesson for the company is, when you are designing a product as well as designing safety in, make sure that your specification to your manufacturer is as tight as can be; every component should be clearly specified so it doesn’t allow for latitude in interpretation.*

Gail: And put some measures in place to ensure raw materials are used, as they need to be.

Martin: Absolutely. One of the questions that people raise is: how often should I have a product tested or re-tested? Do I just test it once and have a certificate that lasts its entirety, and our answer to that is – most definitely not!

There is no prescriptive period of frequency for testing, but I would advocate that every time there is a major change to your product, whether it be a new ingredient or new modified design, each and every time you should be retesting to make sure you haven’t inadvertently introduced an unforeseen risk to your product.

E commerce

Gail: If I could take you now to the internet, it’s impacting product safety in all sorts of ways. Some good and maybe some not so good, we could maybe even describe these things as opportunities and threats. Can you describe from your experience, one opportunity and one threat with regard to the internet?

Martin: Yes I think that’s fascinating. In the early days, as a regulator, part of how you assessed the tasks in front of you was to count the number of fixed premises you had in your area, so how many toy shops, how many DIY stores, that type of thing.

That landscape has changed now – it’s almost pointless counting because through the internet you have an infinite number of potential suppliers. So you are no longer policing your own backyard you are policing the rest of the world!

In terms of opportunity I like to think of the internet, generally speaking, in a positive light. The big opportunity is from the consumer perspective, all of a sudden you have so much more choice, you are able to buy products from anywhere in the world.

It has brought untold benefits for people in remote communities, but that brings the same risks again. All of a sudden you’re talking about products coming from countries that may have gone straight from source to consumer without any sort of physical intervention by the supply chain – it’s perfectly possible for people to buy and sell the products without touching them.

I think that brings some inherent and potential risks. Especially because with some businesses now, you don’t have to be an expert necessarily, you don’t have to carry a lot of stock. A lot of people make a good living from buying a container of a product for example. Say someone buys two hundred lawnmowers for a hundred dollars each and sell them for two hundred dollars each, there’s a quick twenty thousand dollar profit. You don’t have to be a lawn mower expert.

I guess that’s part of the threat, it’s the bittersweet, you have all the opportunity to suddenly buy a huge vista of products, but it’s ‘How can we be sure as regulators, consumers or suppliers that the products we are looking at dealing and buying are safe?’

Gail: So consumers need to be at least as discerning as when shopping at bricks and mortar stores, and possibly even more so.

Martin: I think that generally if you are buying over the internet you would have not seen the product. You would have seen a picture and nice descriptive words. You don’t have the opportunity as such to pick it up, look at it and feel the weight and functionality. I guess that brings additional responsibilities to everyone and I include the consumer in that – they need to do some homework and research themselves.

One of the attractions of the internet can be that the products are very cheap, and people do like a bargain – they like to get things as cheap as possible. But that shouldn’t be any reason for letting your guard down, so any information you can get around a particular product such as the results of testing done by consumer bodies, draw in all that information at whatever source you can get. The internet again is a great source of information, not all of it may be dead accurate and for every one opinion you’ll get a counter opinion, but there is a lot of information out there if you choose to follow it up and I think that’s where the consumer has to shop in a slightly different way than what they have done in the past.

Gail: At least you can do it all sitting in your lounge room. You’ve saved time going out and doing the shopping, so if it takes a little bit longer to research before you buy – including going onto websites like the product safety advisory websites and recall details – that’s something consumers can do.

Martin: Absolutely, in New Zealand we have one particular retail internet facility that’s fairly dominant called ‘Trade Me’, and we work quite closely with them. They do recognise that whilst they may not have a strict legal responsibility, they have a way to help the marketplace function effectively by providing information. So for businesses and for consumers, in certain key areas they will provide drop down information automatically if someone is browsing in a particular place. That’s something we would work to encourage, so that people are almost automatically given information when they’re considering what they might purchase.

Roles in product safety – business, government, consumers . . .

Gail: That leads us onto another aspect of product safety in terms of the debate as to who has responsibility for it. Some say it’s government, some say it’s consumers, some say it’s suppliers or is it all of the above? Where do you see the responsibility?

Martin: I think I would go with all of the above. I am not an economist but when people describe the marketplace you have buyers and sellers in all different places and I think for me, everyone has his or her own area of responsibility.

The law makes it the legal responsibility of the suppliers to supply safe products – it doesn’t matter what jurisdiction you are in. So there’s a clear onus on suppliers, and by suppliers I mean everyone from the people that physically make the product to the people who put it on the shop shelf or in the post.

I also think government has a responsibility, particularly in terms of the risks and issues which we touched on earlier, the hidden risks where it’s not possible or easy for a consumer to recognise a risk or to be able to deal with it.

Something like a sharp knife that is self-evident, I don’t say it’s government’s role to have to think about warning people about a sharp knife. It’s a consumer’s responsibility to recognise a knife is dangerous so don’t let children get close to it – it’s all fairly common sense stuff. But there are hazards which the average person/consumer couldn’t possibly be able to see for themselves.

I think that’s where governments have to consider their place in the market. And that’s where we come back to the chemicals. And things like nanotechnology for example- there’s a whole area of huge potential – with a huge raft of potential issues on the back of it. We don’t have all the knowledge about nanotechnology and all its many forms.

Gail: And you certainly can’t see nanoparticles!

Martin: You certainly can’t. There’s no question about innovation and we need to develop products by nanotechnology, but hand in glove with that we have to be guarded against unforeseen consequences.

The application of nano-silver particles is already out there – it’s in things like clothing and socks and in various places because of its anti-bacterial properties, things like fridges and washing machines. Using nano-silver is a way of reducing bacterial contamination, but do we yet know what that nano-silver is going to do if it gets out into the environment? It may well be benign but we don’t know fully.

I think that’s where governments have to be vigilant and be tracking the development of these products and drawing on information, talking to the scientists and sharing information with colleagues around the world. It won’t be like if you cut yourself with a knife where you know you have done harm because you are bleeding, but with exposure to a lot these chemicals and nanotechnology it could be a cumulative thing over time and potential threats in the longer term.

. . . and doctors

Martin: Another area of dialogue that we’re getting better at, is talking to the medical fraternity. We’re asking them if they’re seeing changes over time, more things presenting that might suggest some product-related cause and I think that’s where other regulators have to think like that.

Gail: That takes me to another thing I was going to ask you about – in your presentation this morning you talked about helping to educate doctors, general practitioners out in the suburbs about the button battery hazard. What led you to identifying that as an avenue that was important?

Martin: It’s a great example of talking to other professions. In 2012 we were lucky enough in Wellington, New Zealand to host the world conference on safety. It didn’t just focus on product safety and it had nearly a thousand delegates talking about a whole list of safety issues, but we did a session on button batteries and we invited doctors from around the world, and there were clearly varying levels of understanding.

I made a presentation to an audience and it was interesting because in the open plenary dialogue there were some doctors saying we have been aware of the problem in the product for some time (which begged the question about why hadn’t they told anyone about it, but that’s another issue).

But equally there were some doctors for whom this was their first exposure to the problem and as I said earlier, the problem with button batteries isn’t something you can sit in your hands and think about what you’re going to do – the clock is ticking from the point of ingestion.

The conventional wisdom as a parent would be to go to the general practitioner and in actual fact that’s not the thing to do – and this isn’t being disrespectful to GPs – but going to the doctor wouldn’t treat the risk quickly enough.

So our advice that the multi-agency initiative has developed – we have targeted all of the GP surgeries in New Zealand with clear information about button batteries: the risks and issues and the need for prompt action.

We believe that should help improve things. Thankfully we don’t get too many of these cases, but when you know that the swallowing and ingestion of a button battery can and has led to children’s fatalities then clearly time is of the essence. It was one of these areas where we had to let the key people know, including ambulance officers and other first-responders.

Gail: Absolutely. So the idea of dealing with doctors and informing them came about through a bit of inter-disciplinary conferencing and meetings. It’s good that it happened; it might not have been deliberate, but you were able to recognise there was an opportunity and a need.

Martin: I think that similar sort of engagement should be part of what happens, so having opened up those channels of communication it would be our intent to keep having regular dialogue, to alert doctors with any new risks that come onto the marketplace with substances and compounds.

A salutary tale to finish on

Gail: I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me, I would like to finish with a question of whether you have any interesting anecdotes?

Martin: Well hopefully this one isn’t too beyond a certain line: I can remember early on in my career when I moved from the north of England to Scotland to pursue my career, so this would be the early 80’s. The case involved a dressing gown that caused a broken wrist – you might think ‘Well how did that happen?’

So, in central Scotland there was a medium sized industrial town and in that part of Scotland there are a lot of buildings which are three/four/five storey stone buildings where people had flats or apartments. We got a complaint there, I was the youngest inspector there so I got to deal with a lot of the first callers.

And so a young lady came in with a dressing gown and said this dressing gown has caused a broken wrist, and I couldn’t figure it out. What had happened was, she’d bought a new dressing gown and one morning she got up and slipped her dressing gown on and she went across to her gas cooker and she was making a cup of tea and she lit the gas cooker and leant across.

Now with certain types of materials, and this was a towelling material, there is a phenomenon known as surface pile flash which, particularly with new materials, it’s like flame racing across the fuzz on the outside of the gown. After you wash it, it tends to go away, but basically she leant across the gas cooker and this surface pile flash went right across her dressing gown. So with great presence of mind she threw her dressing gown off – except she wasn’t wearing any clothes underneath, and just outside on the scaffolding there was a builder doing some repair work on the building. He looked over and saw her in there with no clothes. It was a bit of a shock to him and he fell off the scaffolding and broke his wrist.

It wasn’t even her wrist, she was concerned about the builder (whose experience was, you could say, mixed); her concern was about the propensity of the garment to have surface pile flash.

It wasn’t something that necessarily warranted a regulatory intervention, but the supplier was responsible enough to give much clearer washing instructions on the remaining stock and future supplies to wash before use and that would negate the risk.

I never found out what happened to that builder though . . .

Gail: No, well, I think there’s lessons in there for all of us.

Thank you Martin for giving us your time and the benefit of your experience.

This interview was recorded in Brussels, Belgium in June 2014.


* You might also like to read a recent story on the Bindeez Bead style toys, in which the distributor was taken to court in the USA and was ordered to pay almost half a million dollars in damages.