- Created: Thursday, 27 October 2011 10:34
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After a recent series of high profile appliance fires, not least of which being from Beko and Bosch, questions are being asked about the way in whihc potentially life threatening product recals or safety notifications are handled by manufacturers and the UK regulators.
In a special report Rueters investigates and comes up with some results that may be surprising to some.
In November 2008 a student in Cork, Ireland, died from carbon monoxide poisoning which the coroner said was caused by a gas cooker. The cooker was sold under the New World brand which is owned by appliance maker Glen Dimplex. The cooker had been manufactured by Arcelik (pronounced Arch-e-lick) who trade as Beko in the UK.
A investigation by Arcelik-Glen Dimplex discovered that potentially lethal carbon monoxide fumes could build up if the oven's grill unit was used with the oven door closed.
In January 2009, Glen Dimplex informed Ireland's National Consumer Agency and its UK regulator, the Trading Standards unit in Knowsley borough, of these findings. The company and both regulators agreed to issue consumer warnings immediately.
That month Beko also informed the regulator for its UK headquarters, Hertfordshire Trading Standards, of the problem. But it took until March for the Hertfordshire regulator to issue a warning about the ovens. By that point another oven owner had been killed, bringing the total deaths to at least six people that are known about, according to reports.
Arcelik said it had taken a "pro-active approach" and that its products had met EU safety standards, but its UK subsidiary, Beko, declined comment on any settlements related to the case. Glen Dimplex also declined comment, as did Hertfordshire Trading Standards.
The regulator also refused a Freedom of Information Act request for details of its discussions with the company, saying that if such information was released, its relationship "would suffer as they would be less inclined to release sensitive information to us".
Since 2005, the European Commission has recorded fire safety warnings for 37 fridge-freezer models. Sixteen of those models were made by Arcelik under the Beko brand, 18 by Swedish-based Dometic (including some fridge-freezer-oven combinations used in mobile homes), and three by South Korea-based Samsung. So it would appear, on the face of it, that Beko or Acelik, produced fridge freezers would have a much higher chance of bursting into flames.
Fire chiefs told Reuters they took the unusual step of issuing a public statement about the Arcelik appliances because the company itself had failed to publicise the danger. Consumer groups also charge the company as well as the British regulators with dragging its feet when it came to warning people of the dangers.
Arcelik agrees design flaws in certain fridge-freezers are to blame for the fires. A company spokeswoman told Reuters in an email it believes "there have been 29 incidents which can be attributed to an issue with the defrost timer since 2006." But the company says it acted as quickly as possible to tackle the issue. Regulators declined to comment.
The issue highlights how an increasingly globalised supply chain can expose consumers to weaker safety regimes than they may be used to. The European Union's database of unsafe products has seen a sharp rise in product warnings since 2003, and the vast majority is on products made in emerging markets. Against this backdrop, Britain's fragmented regulatory regime can slow public notification of life-threatening defects. And companies whose products injure or even kill face much milder sanctions in Europe than in the United States.
"The regulatory and safety standards in the U.S. and the EU have developed over a long period of time," said Luke Upchurch of lobby group Consumers International. "A lot of the products are coming from jurisdictions where there aren't tight controls ... It's still very difficult to monitor that on an international basis."
Up to half a million of the Arcelik appliances have been sold in the United Kingdom and another 9,000 in other countries. Following the Fire Brigade's July announcement the company started a media blitz inviting owners of affected models to have modifications made.
"They could have acted faster ... there are a lot of questions unanswered in this," says Alice Judd, senior researcher at the UK's Consumer Association.
The June 2010 notice from the fire service -- Arcelik says it did not receive the letter until the middle of July -- confirmed that timer units on certain models manufactured between 2000 and 2006 were prone to condensation, according to Andrew Mullen, Director of Service at Arcelik's UK unit. Condensation can cause a short-circuit, which may ignite plastic components and other highly flammable insulation inside the appliance.
Mr Mullen said the company then spent months trying unsuccessfully to recreate an accidental fire: "As soon as we received this letter... we intensely tried to simulate the problem."
After the death caused by a Beko fridge fire, Arcelik abandoned its attempt to replicate the fires and started to design a fix that would stop condensation getting into the timers.
At this point Arcelik also planned a campaign to alert owners. But it decided against taking out advertisements in newspapers or issuing a press release, common practice in such situations and measures it had taken in the past. The company said it wanted to contact people by mail rather than rely on people seeing a notice in a newspaper.
It began gathering addresses, but did not post its first letters until mid-April 2011. A spokeswoman for the fire service said that between February and April 2011, there were nine fires in London involving the Beko fridge freezers under scrutiny.
The full article can be found here and it makes an interesting read.