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How can I be sure that a product is fit for purpose?

23 January 2013

This is a question that the British Standards Institution (BSI)
is frequently asked ,explains Rob Hine who discusses the
measures that are in place to ensure products live up to

The matter of whether or n

This is a question that the British Standards Institution (BSI) is frequently asked ,explains Rob Hine who discusses the measures that are in place to ensure products live up to expectations.

The matter of whether or not a product is fit for purpose is particularly pertinent and important in the safety sector as a substandard PPE product could easily lead to injury or worse.

It has been suggested that the easy answer is to choose products that carry the CE mark. After all, this shows that they conform to all relevant EU directives, so surely it confirms that they are fit for purpose. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. The CE mark was never intended to be a quality mark. Its sole function is to act as a "conformity declaration" that allows products to be freely traded in EU countries.

This is reflected in the way the CE marking system operates. It is essentially a scheme based on individual responsibility.

Suppliers are often relied upon to make their own Declaration of Conformity that allows them to affix the CE mark but, for some products, there are no mandatory checks on this process. Certainly, the person responsible for the issuing the Declaration of Conformity has to produce supporting documentation and evidence if challenged to do so, but in general, this often only happens after a problem has arisen.

This method of operation has two important consequences. The first is that suppliers can, either through a misunderstanding of the requirements or deliberately, apply the CE marking to products that do not actually conform to the relevant EU requirements. The second is that products incorrectly marked in this way can be in circulation for long periods.

They are, in fact, unlikely to be detected until it is too late - that is, when failures have occurred and complaints have been made.

Some products, largely those that are considered safety critical, require mandatory testing before the CE mark can be applied. To do this, manufacturers need to use the services of a Notified Body. However, many purchasers and users of such products are not easily able to know the difference.

In short, CE marking most certainly has its place as an invaluable aid to free trade, but it cannot and should not be seen as a reliable indicator of product quality or that the product meets mandatory requirements. But what are the alternatives? One solution is for purchasers and specifiers to make their own checks to confirm that products comply with all relevant standards. This approach, however, is not without its problems.

Testing compliance First of all, what are the relevant standards, and what are the latest versions of those standards? Second, how can the average specifier or purchaser check that the products really do comply especially as, in many cases, specialist test equipment is needed to confirm compliance? It is to address these issues that a number of quality mark schemes have been developed, such as the Kitemark certification scheme operated by BSI.

For this scheme, expert inspectors carry out all of the work involved in ensuring that products have been tested and proved to meet the relevant standards. And, because these inspectors are leaders in the standards field, they will be fully aware of which standards should be applied, and of the latest revisions to these standards.

But this is not the only step in granting a quality mark such as the Kitemark licence. The inspectors also check on the supplier's quality systems, its warranties, its procedures for dealing with customer complaints and many other aspects of its operational and management policies.

Only when the inspectors are satisfied in all of these areas is a quality mark granted.

And even this isn't the end of the story.

The whole assessment process is repeated at regular intervals to ensure that performance and quality are being maintained.

In summary, unlike CE marking, quality marking such as the Kitemark confirms that a product has been properly and independently tested and that it genuinely meets all of the appropriate requirements. It is therefore, a convenient and comprehensive solution to the original question of finding products that can be relied upon as being fit for purpose.

In future issues of HSM Rob Hine will be answering questions related to understanding standards in specific areas of health & safety. If you have a question for Rob, please email: Kitemark@bsigroup.com, putting HSM Question in the subject line