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November 22, 2011

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Construction – Protection racket

David Lummis discusses the problem of counterfeit personal protective equipment in the construction industry and suggests how organisations  can address this ongoing problem.

According to statistics from the HSE, in 2009/10 the construction industry had one of the highest rates of reported fatal injuries – 42 deaths1 – compared to any other main industry group. Additionally in 2009/10, it was reported that 2585 non-fatal injuries and 5651 over-three-day injuries happened to individuals working in the construction industry.1 In 2010/11, provisional statistics indicate that there were 50 fatalities in the construction industry in Britain, more than any other industry2 and a rise from the previous year.

The construction industry is – not surprisingly, given the nature of the work it undertakes – fraught with danger. Along with agriculture it consistently records the most work-related fatalities in the UK each year. In addition, thousands of serious injuries are sustained every year in the sector, so minimising the risk of ‘foreseeable’ accidents and putting adequate prevention methods in place is crucial if these figures are to be reduced.

One of the main ways of reducing injuries is ensuring that adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided for all workers – both permanent and casual. PPE is defined in the PPE at Work Regulations 1992 as “all equipment (including clothing affording protection against the weather), which is intended to be worn or held by a person at work and which protects him against one or more risks to his health and safety”. The Regulations require that PPE be supplied and used at work wherever there are risks to health and safety that cannot be adequately controlled in other ways.

Where a risk to health and safety is identified, the first priority is to eliminate it by providing safer alternatives, installing collective protection, or changing the working method. If it is not possible to achieve the required degree of protection through these means, then PPE needs to be specified.

While it is considered the last line of defence in the hierarchy of risk controls, PPE nevertheless plays a vital role in keeping workers safe from harm. It creates barriers between a person and a hazard and thus its contribution to the protective mix should not be underestimated.

It goes without saying that equipment with such an important function needs to meet stringent performance standards, and products that do so will carry such ‘proof’ as the European CE mark and the British Kitemark, among others. In recent years, however, counterfeit PPE has become a widespread problem – particularly for the unfortunate individuals wearing it, whose health and safety was, or could have been severely compromised as a result, but also for employers, who believe they are purchasing adequate PPE for the workforce, when, in fact, the products may be illegal and/or fake.

A growing market
When an individual uses PPE they are relying on the item/s to protect them against specific work-related hazards. If the item is sub-standard the wearer is placed at serious risk of injury, or worse, as they are relying on a product to carry out a job that it is not able to do. Non-conforming high-visibility vests, hand protection, hard hats and prescription safety glasses are, regrettably, just a few of the products that continue to find their way on to the market. Unfortunately, to the untrained and unsuspecting eye, illegal, non-conforming safety equipment can be hard to distinguish from the real thing and, in many instances, goes unnoticed until an accident occurs.

Many of these counterfeit products arrive in containers from the Far East and can be readily purchased online, or from high-street markets. It is quite easy to buy containers of ‘safety’ equipment direct and, without organisations having the correct quality-control procedures in place, the buyer will not have a clue what they are purchasing.

While it is understandable that companies are looking to save money in the current economic climate, and may feel that cost savings can be made when purchasing safety clothing and equipment, the reality is that this is putting life and limb at risk.

Over the past year, a number of cases involving counterfeit products have come before the courts. In one instance, prescription safety spectacles were being sold as CE-approved safety equipment, when, in fact, certification had not yet been granted. Following an enquiry, the product was withdrawn from the market until it had gained the required certification, and the supplier/manufacturer was asked to write letters to its purchasers to apologise.

In March this year, a leading construction equipment manufacturer was prosecuted by Trading Standards after a random sample of its hard hats failed prescribed tests.3 It was found that the hats failed to protect against high-velocity impact in terms of either shock absorption or penetration resistance. The company had ordered the hats from a manufacturer in China, but admitted it had only conducted safety compliance testing on the first batch supplied. It was fined £2500 plus £1821.50 in costs.

Reputable manufacturers are also discovering that products from their ranges are being copied and passed off as genuine. This year, a major fall-arrest harness manufacturer discovered Chinese counterfeit versions of its products available on the European market. These counterfeit goods had serious defects, which affect their performance and strength, meaning there is a significant risk that these products could open or otherwise fail at low loads and under normal use (see also panel overleaf).

As already mentioned, it can be very difficult for end users to identify these products as fakes, as many of them are expertly reproduced and include the real manufacturer’s logos and quality marks, as well as product markings, batch numbers, instructions, etc. So, the only way an end user has of ensuring they are buying a genuine product is purchasing it from an authorised supplier.

Make sure it’s the real McCoy
Employers have a basic duty to provide genuine PPE that will protect their workers from hazards while carrying out their work. There is a number of practical measures that buyers of PPE can take to avoid being sold sub-standard products:

1    Buy from a reputable source
To help ensure compliant safety equipment is supplied to end users the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) set up the Registered Safety Supplier Scheme,4 which helps signpost purchasers of safety equipment to experienced and ethical companies, which will provide equipment that ‘does what it says on the tin’.

The scheme, which was launched in 2009, allows its members to identify themselves as having made a formal declaration that they are selling only products that are genuine and legal. This declaration is, as a condition of the scheme, independently audited through special provisions set out within the company’s ISO9001 certification. The BSIF actively promotes the scheme to its members and encourages end users to look for the Registered Safety Supplier Scheme shield (above) as a guarantee of compliance, performance and quality. 

2    Take note of the price
If an item is extraordinarily cheap there are usually good reasons – shoddy workmanship, poor materials, and non-conformance to required standards, to name a few.

3    Consider the look and feel of the product
In many instances, just by carrying out a thorough inspection of the item you might be able to uncover noticeable defects.

4    Check the labelling on the product
This can help verify the product as being genuine and legal – for example, is the CE marking present on the product labelling and displayed in the correct font and at least 5mm high? 

5    Check documentation
Have written instructions been provided in clear and legible text? The PPE Regulations require that the instructions for use are precise, comprehensible and provided at least in the official language(s) of the Member State of destination (i.e. the country in which the product is sold). Also, is the name and address of the manufacturer detailed on the user instructions?

6    Check the product’s certificates
If you are still unsure, the supplier of the product should be able to provide an EC Declaration of Conformity, or EC-Type Examination Certificate for the product in question. The BSIF can advise on the product’s legal status, or performance capability.

While substantial improvements have been made in construction health and safety over the last decade, needless deaths and injuries still occur. However big or small the organisation, employers in the sector need to be extra vigilant when looking after their workforce to ensure health and lives are not at risk. Just being aware of the type of counterfeit items available on the market, and remembering that offers that seem ‘too good to be true’ usually are is a step in the right direction.

Purchasing the right PPE is a big responsibility, as safety equipment that doesn’t perform properly isn’t just inconvenient, it may actually cost lives. The construction industry needs to remain vigilant on such matters and companies must continue to strive to provide adequate, genuine and reliable PPE for their workforce, if the toll of deaths and injuries in the sector is really to be tackled.


The evolving PPE directive

The PPE Directive is a fundamental piece of European legislation relating to occupational safety throughout Europe. It is currently under review and the general principles of the revision have been agreed at an international level across the EU. Before the final drafting was undertaken, there was a period of consultation (as EU rules require), which closed in June this year. The timetable set out by the

EU Commission anticipates that the new PPE Directive will be in force by 2014, with the final version available from Spring 2012.

The new Directive is set to make distributors and resellers of PPE responsible for the integrity of the equipment they are selling, as well as continuing to place the responsibility on manufacturers. The repercussions throughout the purchasing chain of this new focus of responsibility will help ensure end users can purchase from a distributor with confidence, comfortable in the knowledge that the products they are buying are genuine.


It might look like a safety helmet but is it up to standard?

The pictures you see here illustrate what can happen when counterfeit PPE hasn’t performed in an accident, writes Mark Johnstone, of UK PPE manufacturer, JSP Ltd. The poor individual was wearing what has been identified as a counterfeit helmet that completely failed.  

Fake PPE and many no-name brand or private labelled import helmets do not pass the required standards (for head protection, the main ones are EN812, EN397 and EN14052). The shocking fact is that importers are able to bring such products into the UK without carrying out any secondary batch-release testing. They generally rely on a CE mark, which is not a quality mark, and which can be self-declared, i.e. the manufacturer simply states that it believes the product meets the relevant EU directive. They can then affix the CE mark to the product and sell it in the EU.

Consequently, there are many PPE products legally on the European market that have not been tested or reviewed. (With mandatory CE marking, the manufacturer must use a notified body to test or review the product before being able to apply the CE mark. However, there is no visible difference between a mandatory CE mark and a self-declared one.)

Myriad factors affect a product’s performance, such as quality of raw materials, moulding and manufacturing processes and settings, competency of assembly, and storage. The reality is that importers have neither the equipment nor the competence to guarantee the performance of the objects they are selling to UK industry and the  construction market. The upshot is that lives are being put at risk, unnecessarily.

Counterfeit products are mostly purchased for price reasons but, in reality, the cost savings are relatively small. They are cheaper principally because recycled materials have been used rather than premium, virgin, impact-modified and UV-stabilised materials that standards-compliant manufacturers use. A serious brain injury can incapacitate an individual and mean they will no longer work again –  the harrowing impact on their life and their family, as well as the drain on the state, go without saying. Why take such risks buying sub-standard products? Why mess around?

All the leading-brand manufacturers operate a range categorisation – from simple helmets to more premium designs, all at different price points but all, importantly, meeting and exceeding the relevant standards.

Look also for the Kitemark. This year at JSP we have reintroduced the Kitemark scheme for our PPE products, quite simply because it guarantees safety performance. In conjunction with the British Standards Institution (BSI), we have embarked on an education programme for the country’s leading health and safety professionals to explain what the Kitemark means, and to demonstrate how different helmets have different performance levels. We are advocating a risk-based approach to head protection so the right form is chosen in different environments to the relevant standards.

JSP exports to more than 90 countries, and we estimate there are 20 copy helmets around the world. We deal with that by engaging with end users and working with reputable distributors, and by constantly evolving our head protection range – innovating, improving, investing and managing our intellectual-property rights by controlling our design rights and applying patent protection, where relevant. 

Mark Johnstone is chief executive of JSP Ltd – visit for more information


David Lummis is chief executive of the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF).


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