Fire safety standards and the Watchdog effect
FIRE Correspondent Catherine Levin reports on the positive impact BBC’s Watchdog programme could have on changes to regulations on flammability standards for children’s fancy dress costumes:
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For any parent of young children, toys are an essential part of family life: finding them, tidying them up and not trying to leave the most precious ones on the bus. Worrying about them being safe should not be part of the mix. And yet, recently, there has been a flurry of media about the fire safety of fancy dress clothing aimed at children.
The over-the-top Elsa dress that little girls love so much as they sing along to ‘Let it go’ for the millionth time, is shiny, bright and a nightmare to wash. The manufacturing standards of that dress are set down in regulations that govern the production of toys; it is treated the same way as the stuffed rabbit that comforts the same little girl when she goes to bed at night. The difference is that when that rabbit catches light, it can be dropped. When that dress does the same, it cannot be dropped, it is wrapped around that little girl and the hazard and outcomes are entirely different.
All toys sold in the European Union must comply with the European Toy Directive 2009/48/EC. This was enacted in the UK as the Toys (Safety) Regulations 2011 and came into force on August 19, 2011. The regulations apply to toys that are designed or intended for use in play by children under 14-years-old. Section 12 of the regulations stipulates a safety assessment that the manufacturer must carry out and that includes an analysis of the flammability hazards that the toy may present. There are essential requirements for the manufacture of toys in the European Union and all toys sold in the EU must meet the requirements and carry a CE marking. Carrying the CE marking means that the product complies with the European Community Directive.
The 2011 regulations set out what is required in order to sell toys in the UK. The standard BS EN 71 tells manufacturers how to meet the standard through a specified testing regime. One of the 11 elements of BS EN 71 is concerned with flammability. The standard sets out the tests that the toys must meet in order to be compliant. It focuses on the time taken for flames to spread on the toy after ignition. Any toy that, under test conditions, burns more than 30 mm per second fails the test and cannot be sold.
Any toy that that has a burning rate 10 mm per second up to 30 mm per second does not fail but must carry a label saying ‘Warning! Keep away from fire’. The intention of the regulations is that a child should be able to quickly drop the toy should it ignite and minimise the contact time with the ignition source. Limiting fire spread can be achieved through the use of flame retardant chemicals but not all toys can be completely non-flammable. One of the key arguments put forward in recent media coverage about the standard that applies to fancy dress clothing is that it is treated the same as a toy for standards making (and testing) purposes. However, its use in a play context is as a form of clothing, albeit temporary, and often worn over the top of existing clothing. The only clothing that attracts flammability standards is nightwear. In the UK this is governed by the Nightwear (Safety) Regulations 1985. These regulations came into force on March 1, 1987 and relate to nightwear worn by children and adults.
In the requirements relating to children’s nightwear, flammability performance requirements are optional for pyjamas. Pyjamas made of cotton would fail the performance requirements and in order to pass would need to be treated with fire retardant chemicals, which is unlikely to be acceptable to most consumers. Pyjamas are, therefore, required to bear a label with the red letters ‘KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE’. But it is the nightdresses that really form the focus of these regulations as they are free flowing and more likely to catch fire. In that sense, the similarity between free flowing dressing up clothes, like Elsa dresses and witch costumes, is very clear and the risk the same. The performance test for the nightwear regulations is quite different to the one required by the toy regulations. The testing requirements are also based on a rate of flame spread. According to the government guidelines: ‘If any test piece burns to a trip thread at 300 mm (approx 12”) above the flame point in less than 25 seconds, or to a second trip thread at 600 mm (approx 24”) above the flame point in less than 50 seconds, the test is failed’.
When the BBC’s Watchdog programme, which was the catalyst for media interest during May this year, simulated a rough test of the way in which fancy dress clothes burn when ignited they used three different outfits and the way in which the free flowing witch dress burned was alarming compared with the snug fitting outfit next to it. It was not laboratory conditions and not in line with the EU testing regime, but it was a simple way to demonstrate the point.
Six months earlier, TV star Claudia Winkleman’s eight-year-old daughter, Matilda, was wearing a witch costume to trick or treat on Halloween. Her costume caught alight as a result of brushing against candles. On the Watchdog programme, aired on May 14 this year, Claudia talked about the impact this accident has had on Matilda and the ongoing treatment she has received for her severe burns. Unfortunately, Matilda’s accident is not a oneoff and children suffer severe burns in similar and different circumstances. The Children’s Burns Trust offers help and support for children and their families. Alison Tweddle, Operations Manager at the Trust, says their work is divided into three areas: prevention, rehabilitation and support.
The Trust is a small organisation with offices in Victoria, London. Alison talks about the “lovely partnership” the Trust has with the Fire Fighters Charity. Over the last ten years, the Fire Fighters Charity has provided food and accommodation at their facility in Cumbria to allow six families to spend a weekend away in a supportive environment. Paul Fuller, Chief Fire Officer of Bedfordshire and Luton Fire and Rescue Service, is a Trustee of the Children’s Burns Trust and a passionate advocate for fire safety in this area. He was very involved in the making of the BBC’s Watchdog programme and can be seen providing the facility for the programme to test the fancy dress outfits. For him, the way forward is a combination of reviewing regulations and increasing awareness. Since the programme aired, the move to changes in regulations seems to be gaining some traction, with considerable media interest generating some surprisingly proactive responses from the major supermarket chains.
Sainsbury’s was quick off the mark when it issued a press release on May 22 stating: ‘From Halloween 2015, all children’s dress-up sold by Sainsbury’s will also meet the British nightwear flammability safety standard’. This is good news, if the stringent test described above for nightwear is applied to all fancy dress clothes sold by Sainsbury’s then that has to be an improvement. The press notice goes on to say ‘all clothing carries some fire risk, but we hope that introducing our own rigorous testing standards that test (fancy dress) clothes as clothes rather than as toys will be the first step towards safer testing across the country’.
Months before the Watchdog programme aired, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute noted its concern about the increasing numbers of ‘unsafe, poor quality costumes that are entering the European market’. It offered evidence from a rise in the number of RAPEX notifications (these allow EU member states to highlight products that pose a severe risk to the health and safety of consumers) regarding chemical and flammability hazards relating to children’s fancy dress clothes.
While it is good news that a major supermarket like Sainsbury’s is being proactive in this area, it will not do anything to prevent other suppliers from selling products like those highlighted through the RAPEX process. And this is where that awareness piece that CFO Fuller promotes comes in. Where parents know about the hazards and are well informed about what to look for in a label attached to children’s fancy dress clothes, the likelihood of purchasing outfits like those highlighted by the RAPEX process diminishes.
Something perhaps for CFOA to campaign on in the run-up to Halloween this year? It seems that the combination of awareness and changes to standards is the key to improved outcomes here.
The government was asked after the Watchdog programme to comment on their findings. The initial government response, quoted on the follow-up show on May 21, was that ‘the CE mark is a suitable guarantee of safety’. There was no commitment on Watchdog for the government to initiate any changes to the toys regulations but Sainsbury’s Director of Non-Food, James Brown, said in the same press notice ‘we have looked at every detail of our children’s dress-up range in creating our new standard and believe it will be industry leading’. And for a Conservative government, this is music to its ears. To have industry leading the way in making changes to their production and testing regimes (and the standards that go with them) rather than going through the process of editing government regulations is entirely in the spirit of its approach.
However, at the close of the second Watchdog programme, the government is quoted, saying that ministers “will investigate ways to make sure that accidents like Matilda’s become a thing of the past”. So maybe the door is open to some change to the regulations? All of this interest may be incredibly timely. Part 6 of the 2011 toy regulations say that they must be reviewed every five years, so this means a review is due by August 2016. Perhaps this current flurry of media interest will encourage the UK government to consult early on reviewing the 2011 toy regulations. Changing regulations made in the UK would be far quicker than going down any EU route. One option could be to propose excluding fancy dress costumes from the toy regulations and moving their safety requirements into an updated version of the nightwear regulations (changes to these regulations would need to be consulted on too).
Any consultation is likely to consider other items that would benefit from moving into the nightwear regulations to attract the different flammability requirements, but always with an eye to balancing out fire retardants and safety with the environmental and other concerns that go with them. So it is good news when British Standards Institute (BSI) confirms that it ‘takes the responsibility for developing safety standards very seriously and will take appropriate action when concerns with a standard are raised’. Certainly this approach is supported by CFOA. President Peter Dartford was interviewed on the second Watchdog programme and said that his association believed that the standards need to change.
BSI convened a meeting of industry representatives and other stakeholders on July 10 ‘to review whether the current standard (EN 71-2) is stringent enough’. The outcome of that meeting was unknown at the time of writing. Whatever the actions coming out of that meeting, it is unlikely any change will be made quickly but it is encouraging that government, industry and other stakeholders, including those from the fire sector, got round the table and considered the viability of the current flammability standards. This standards work is likely to affect any government led review of the 2011 toy regulations and/or the 1985 nightwear regulations. It looks like the Watchdog programme is likely to be a real catalyst for change and will influence improved safety for children who just want to have some fun on Halloween, even if it does mean dressing up as Elsa.
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