Electrical safety and compliance for Australia in the 21st century

Comtest Group

By Peter Dwyer, CEO
Tuesday, 01 June, 2021

Electrical safety and compliance for Australia in the 21st century

It has become abundantly obvious that the way in which consumers purchase electrical products and devices in this country has changed forever.

The old ‘bricks and mortar’ model may be a thing of the past, or at least changing dramatically into the future for consumer-based goods. There is no doubt that some products still require the opportunity to be touched and felt by the consumer; however, consumers are adapting, as are retailers, and this tactile prepurchase experience is rapidly becoming less of a barrier and more accepted. The new way is clearly online purchasing, with strategic and tactical marketing coupled with behavioural tracking allowing online retailers globally to target individuals and localised demographics.

Online platforms are interlinked with purchasing processes that are not only intuitive and easy to use, but linked to previous purchases, which enables the purchaser to transact without the need to reach for their physical credit card. The ease of making a purchase from anywhere in the world has some estimates putting Australian online retail purchasing at $40 billion by 2022.

So how does this change from the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ model to purchasing online impact product safety and compliance? And ultimately the continued safety and comfort of the Australian public?

The illustration below is the basic structure of traditional purchasing. There are some variances on this, but this is I believe the most common:

For a clearer image, click here.

This can be the basic 21st century model and is a lot different from the one above:

For a clearer image, click here.

The bricks and mortar model, although not perfect, has checks and balances that are designed to protect the end consumer, the end consumer’s family and property. This model is widely understood and has largely served us well probably since the early 20th century.

With this model, typically products being sold have had some sort of testing to ensure that the products comply to Australian Standards and are compatible for use in Australia. For the higher risk products there are specific tests, registration and documentation requirements that need to be met and maintained in order to sell the products. If in the unfortunate case something happens to go wrong, there are some forms of recourse for the end consumer and mechanisms for products to be withdrawn from supply. Products would also display the regulatory compliance mark RCM indicating compliance. Regulators and authorities have registered ‘in country’ contacts for the products and can exert some form of control.

So how does it work for purchases made online, where there are, in many cases, no local entities such as retailers, distributors or sales agents to deal with? In my opinion it does not work very well!

A good number of products we have seen and tested from online platforms are compliant, have all the test reports, documentation and markings; however, many do not, and these products are of major concern, particularly when we consider the increasing volumes and diversity being sold.

With the enormous number of products and technologies being purchased online each day, week, month and year, there needs to be a significant paradigm change. The current compliance model and regulatory controls are clearly inadequate to deal with the online purchasing model and behaviours. The system needs to be revisited and changed to meet 21st century purchasing patterns.

If this situation continues in its current form, there will be an ever-increasing number of non-compliant products and technologies entering the Australian consumer marketplace that will simply expose our unsuspecting and trusting public to untested and potentially dangerous products.

The assumption that the end consumer knows what to look for with regard to safety and compliance when purchasing products is, in my opinion, misguided and naive. The lure of purchasing cheap untested products, especially for people who have previously not needed to consider safety and compliance at time of purchase, is too great if there is no understanding. Consumers have been assured of safety and compliance when purchasing in bricks and mortar due to the laws and controls; they quite rightly assume that they are still protected even when purchasing online — and this evidently is not the case!

Products manufactured overseas are not a problem if the Australian quality standards are met and the regulatory system is followed; however, when costs need to be cut to remain competitive or enter a crowded marketplace, quality often suffers.

This is important because it is more likely that products purchased, for example, from an established Chinese manufacturer are made for Europe or China, which operate on 220 V. While these products might function adequately in Australia, there is a potential safety issue in that the built-in safety margin does not stretch out to 230–240 V. Many people are of the belief that if a product carries the CE mark it is safe and permitted automatically for use in Australia and New Zealand; this is not the case.

The CE mark has long been a mark of safety and compliance in Europe and has been embedded in the understanding of consumers through education programs and continual messaging about the need to check for the CE mark before making a purchase. This belief has been transferred to the Australian public and importers to the region, who subsequently and incorrectly assume it is compliant to the local standards of Australia and New Zealand.

That old adage ‘Buyer beware’ doesn’t cut it! Times have changed and for the public to remain protected and safe the modus operandi needs to change and evolve. I wonder if it is a case of the regulatory tortoise being outpaced by the technology hare!

So what is the answer?

Whilst most regions of the world have generic requirements for product safety, most countries have specific/particular requirements that need to be met and Australia is no different. Some countries control the compliance of products by legislating that products are tested in country to their local requirements — is this a consideration? Is it a border control issue whereby customs need to play a greater role? Should there be education programs for the end consumer? If so, what will it need to be?

Perhaps red flags could be displayed to alert end consumers if they are purchasing a product online from overseas suppliers, to at least consider if the products are suitable for use in Australia and ensure the product carries the Australian RCM regulatory mark.

If you would like to know more, please contact us on +613 96455933 or visit our website: www.comtestgroup.com.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Jefry Maviskho

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