How do you know a product is safe?

Dr Ruth Barker explains why the safety information for the products we buy can be "conflicting and confusing".

Image of Dr Ruth Barker
By Dr Ruth Barker

When is a product safe to use?

Dr Ruth Barker is a Brisbane-based emergency paediatrician and director of the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit.

It would probably surprise most Australians to realise that of the many thousands of products available on the market, most have no voluntary safety standards and only 42 have mandatory safety standards – where sections of the voluntary standard have been enforced in legislation.

So how can we rely on a product to be safe to use?

Under the current system, unless there's a mandatory Australian standard, products are able to go to market without a burden of proof being placed on the manufacturer to demonstrate that a product is safe.

Having said that, some manufacturers have strong research and development and quality assurance programmes to ensure that their products are fit for purpose, durable and reliable. 

Many also comply with the voluntary standards. It's just that not every manufacturer does this.

Many manufacturers comply with the voluntary standards. It's just that not every manufacturer does this

Products that rely on brand, consumer investment and repeat custom are more likely to invest in risk assessment and safer design. 

But even companies that are brand conscious outsource manufacturing and quality assurance to third-party providers who may be less interested in brand (and consumer) protection.

Products for kids and babies

Marketing, especially of children's products, often invokes safety credentials that can be misleading for consumers. 

One example of this can be seen in the marketing for baby beanbags, which provides conflicting and confusing safety information.

SIDS recommendations are that infants sleep on their backs on a firm flat surface. There's even a voluntary Australian standard for infant mattress firmness that has not yet been mandated, so you can buy an Australian Standard cot (covered by a mandatory standard) that doesn't have an Australian Standard mattress. 

This public health measure has significantly reduced the rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in Australia and other countries. 

The downside is that some infants who spend a lot of time on their back on a firm mattress have a flatter head.

woman setting up cot
Under the current system, you can buy an Australian Standard cot that doesn't have an Australian Standard mattress.

Baby beanbag manufacturers sell their products based on the health benefits of reducing 'flat head' – even though a flat head doesn't affect development and will reshape with age. 

Many sites state that they comply with the mandatory beanbag standard (though there have been some recalls where this wasn't true). 

However, the mandatory beanbag standard is primarily focused on limiting accessibility to the internal contents of the beanbag to prevent children from inhaling beans or crawling into the bean bag and suffocating. 

A baby beanbag that meets the Australian safety standard is not a safe place for a baby to sleep.

The mandatory beanbag standard… doesn't cover the safety of the item as a sleep surface

What many parents don't realise is that infants who fall asleep on a soft or curved surface are at risk of getting into a position where their chin is resting on their chest, causing slow suffocation (try breathing with your chin resting on your chest). 

For this reason, the mandatory beanbag standard has a labelling requirement:

WARNING: Children can suffocate if bean bag filling is swallowed or inhaled. Do not let children climb inside this bean bag. A bean bag is not a safe sleeping surface for an infant under 12 months of age.

Misleading information

Some websites selling baby beanbags stipulate that children are not to be left unattended and that the device should not be used for sleeping. 

But this information is often contradicted by the use of restraint straps and marketing images of children asleep on the bean bag. Often there is no information about sleep risk at all.

Sites selling these products will emphasise their adherence to safety standards, but not make it clear that the standards in question largely apply to preventing access to the contents of the bean bag, rather than the product's suitability as a sleeping surface.

Add to this the issue of beanbags being filled in the home, and compression of beans over time, and you have a recipe for SIDS, but the bean bag still meets the mandatory Australian standard. Confusing, isn't it?

A better way to ensure safety

Currently there are moves to introduce a general safety provision (GSP) within the Australian Consumer Law. 

The GSP would require companies to undertake risk assessment and address hazards before the product appeared on the market. 

Where no standards exist, there are available guides that can identify known risk mechanisms and allow companies to critically review their products both at the design and development phase as well as construction phase.

The advantage of the GSP (other than having well designed and tested products on the market) is that product regulators, in the event of an incident or product of concern, would be able to call for proof of the product being fit for purpose and safe rather than needing to prove that the product was unsafe. 

Reporting of product failures and hazards is unfunded, haphazard and poorly co-ordinated, with only a small fraction of incidents reported to product regulators.

DISCLAIMER: This piece was written for by Dr Ruth Barker.