Guest post by Wendy Middleton

How gathering information from citizens informs product-safety regulation


Guest post by Wendy Middleton, Deputy Director for Science, Engineering & Analysis, Office for Product Safety & Standards at Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)

The Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) is a product regulator that sits within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It is the UK’s national regulator for all consumer products (except for vehicles, medicines and food), and for legal metrology, ensuring weighing and measurement instruments are accurate and reliable. It is also the UK Government’s enforcement authority for a range of goods-based and standards-based regulations.

Engaging with citizens is essential to delivering our mission to be a trusted product regulator for the UK, and to protect consumers from unsafe goods. Determining where and how we best target our efforts, and the likely impact of our interventions, depends upon understanding product-safety risks – what things are unsafe, and why. We work through Local Authority Trading Standards services, and other standards and accreditation bodies, to ensure that manufacturers, distributors and retailers are clear on their roles and responsibilities, and that the routine testing of goods works towards a safer product system. However, the greatest insight into the effectiveness of the system comes from our work with product end users – that is to say, consumers – to understand variations in how they purchase, install, use, maintain and dispose of products; how they report product-safety failings; and how they respond to warnings and recalls. These insights help inform what we can do to improve the system for the safety of all, and protect those who are most vulnerable.

The Public Sector Equality Duty (section 149 of the Equality Act 2010) requires public authorities to eliminate discrimination, and advance equality of opportunity, between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it. In OPSS, however, we aim to go further than this. A broad range of physical, psychological, cultural and socio-economic factors affect what products we buy, where we buy them and how we use them, resulting in a similarly broad range of differing safety risks. By engaging with consumers, hearing the full range of their views and experiences, we can work to design and support the delivery of a product-safety framework that works to protect everyone.

Consumer engagement typically happens through public consultation (where citizens are invited to provide views and respond to proposals in support of decision making), or consumer research (which studies the activity and behaviours of citizens through e.g., observational studies or monitoring of relevant metrics). Increasingly, we are using approaches where citizens play a more active role in the data-gathering and evaluation process. We aim to employ methods which empower citizens in the involvement of policy making: agenda setting; gauging the appetite of citizens for behavioural change of various kinds; and ways of diversifying knowledge creation that help increase citizen engagement with policy. Though not an exhaustive list, the types of methods that enable this include workshops, membership of expert panels, interviews, ethnographic studies, focus groups and public surveys.

In this blog post, I aim to use examples from our work on fireworks policy development, inclusive product design standards, and changing behaviour to improve consumer product registration and recall, in order to demonstrate how OPSS draws on these techniques to achieve a safer product system for all.

Policy development

The purchase and use of fireworks is a contentious and emotive issue, with frequent calls to ban them due to concerns over misuse, anti-social behaviour, and noise having detrimental effects on people and animals. Each year Government receives numerous petitions and correspondence from those calling for a ban, but by contrast hears relatively little from those seeking less radical action or supporting the status quo.

To gain a more representative understanding of UK citizens’ attitudes towards and behaviours around the use of fireworks, OPSS funded a study using a mix of qualitative and quantitative techniques, including 13 ethnographic interviews and a face-to-face survey of almost two thousand adults. Contrary to other published surveys, our survey found that the British public is broadly favourable towards fireworks, with the majority of those surveyed saying they personally enjoyed fireworks (with just a third saying they did not), and very few backing an outright ban for public or private sale and use. Survey participants tended to view organised public firework displays more favourably than those hosted by private individuals, with the majority agreeing that they are a good way to bring people together in the community and to mark important occasions.

Whilst less representative, the ethnographic immersions added further colour to these findings by revealing the cultural significance of fireworks in celebrations including Bonfire Night, New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year and Diwali. It also helped us understand discrepancies between reported behaviours in the survey and observations during the immersions – for example behaviours around the safe storage and use of fireworks, which might not have been revealed through the survey results alone.

Product design standards

If products are designed or tested using only the average metrics for one group in society – for example a single ethnic group, single age group or a single gender – then safety risks may be overlooked, or even increased, for other groups that have not been considered in the design or testing process. To better understand such issues, and to support a review and update of the current regulatory framework for product safety, OPSS is pursuing a variety of approaches to engage with consumers.

In March 2021 we published a Call for Evidence seeking views on the effectiveness of the product-safety system in regulating new and emerging products and business models; the consultation, which closes in June 2021, explicitly invites opinions on the simplicity, inclusivity, responsiveness and transparency of the system (so is as much about how we do things as what we do). Furthermore, in 2020 we commissioned BritainThinks to work with consumers and consumer bodies to better understand inclusive design processes, particularly those that affect product safety for older people. This study identified a number of safety implications associated with certain products being less easy for older people to use, for example:

  • everyday products that require strength and dexterity to operate, such as can openers or heavy vacuum cleaners
  • corded products, which may present an increased tripping hazard
  • products such as remote controls, smart TVs or washing machines, which may have small buttons, small writing or complex instructions.

The study also identified another source of risk, stemming from the use of ‘workarounds’ to enable continued use of a product – for example, using knives instead of can openers, or making potentially unsafe custom adjustments to handrails or banisters. In addition to physical risks, it also highlighted the risk of waste as products go unused, and emotional and psychological harms born out of frustration with a product.

Working closely with consumer groups, this study was able to identify issues with how some products designed for older people are marketed, with many so-called ‘elderly’ participants not identifying with that terminology. It called for an approach to inclusive design principles that goes beyond the idea of products being ‘accessible’ (with all the connotations associated with the use of that word) to the idea of being ‘good’. It seems unlikely that these insights would have been achieved through surveys alone; these are the kinds of benefits accruing when the research engages directly with participants through interviews and focus groups, and through working closely with relevant consumer groups who have access to (and insights about) those they are seeking to protect.

We have also commissioned research with University College London, using a combination of typical survey work with experimental choice manipulations, to try to better understand what risks consumers attribute to different novel product types (e.g. smart oven, smart toddler’s highchair, smart pet feeder), and the factors they use to infer the causes of failures [1]. Consumers included in the study varied in age, gender, educational background and familiarity with the products. On the whole, the study found that smart products were viewed as a little riskier than their non-smart counterparts. When novel products were found to be faulty, causing minor damage or injury, participants attributed a higher degree of responsibility for these outcomes to manufacturers than to themselves or the regulator. However, they also tended to assume that a smart product that is marketed as safer than its non-smart counterpart is less likely to cause harm, and so attributed any failure in such a case to their own mishandling of it. These, again, could be considered to be insights achieved by employing an alternative engagement methodology (choice experiments) which might not have been achieved through a survey-based approach alone.

Changing behaviour

Product-safety recalls (measures aimed at achieving the return of a product, other than a safe product, which has already been supplied or made available to consumers), or corrective actions (actions undertaken with the intention of removing potential for harm and to reduce risk from a product which is not a safe product), are vital interventions for maintaining consumer safety following the identification of a safety fault or defect. In such situations, manufacturers and retailers need to communicate directly with consumers – which they can only do straightforwardly if products are registered by consumers, and if databases of registered products are maintained. However, voluntary registration rates of products and response to product recalls are currently low, with only 45 per cent of consumers saying they were likely to register a product when they bought it, and 19 per cent saying they took no action in response to a recall.

Working with consumers – in this instance through surveys and focus groups – has enabled us to gain an understanding of why this might be. Analysis suggests that consumers are not aware of the link between registration and safety, and conflate warranties and guarantees with registration (as well as having concerns over their personal details being used for uninvited marketing). These findings, alongside work to further understand the best vehicle, voice and message to elicit a behavioural response, have helped us to design a number of possible interventions; we are now testing these in a Randomised Control Trial with two major manufacturers, to assess whether we can improve rates of consumer registration of large white goods. These possible interventions include:

  • an additional leaflet presented in a bold colour format that distinguishes it from the other product forms, and clear distinct labelling on the front of the machines (change in message vehicle)
  • inclusion of the OPSS logo (change in message voice, from manufacturer to Government)
  • text which makes the link between registration and safety (change in message content).

The start of the trial was delayed because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but it is now live, with hopes that it will report in late 2021.

OPSS is dedicated to ensuring that the evidence we gather is made publicly available regardless of the outcome of the findings. Should the trial prove unsuccessful in changing consumer behaviour, this is as important a result in evidencing government action as a positive in informing how we can introduce better product traceability into the system that does not rely so heavily on consumer action.

Overall, understanding consumer attitudes and behaviours through citizen engagement is key to ensuring that the regulation of the products under the OPSS’s remit is as effective as it can be. An understanding of the user’s needs and experiences makes it possible to, in turn, share this information back with business and manufacturers and together better engage with consumers to ensure safety and standards are met, and even to have an involvement in setting new standards. The evolving product landscape presents challenges that cannot be understood from just one perspective, and because of this OPSS is committed to utilising the knowledge, experience and expertise – by which I mean, what is known, how what is known is applied and how long what is known has been applied – of a number of stakeholders, of which citizens are key. Moreover, through the many evidence-based policy channels that OPSS uses, it enables creative use of evidence gathering processes that keep abreast of innovations and emerging methodologies.

[1] Public Perceptions of Smart Products: Attributions of Risk and Blame in Smart Product Failure. University College London (in publication).