Can regulation alone bring safer products?

Aug. 23, 2007
Design engineering is a creative endeavor that involves some trial and error.

George A. Peters

Design engineering is a creative endeavor that involves some trial and error. It's common for second and later generations of a product to be better than the first release, a fact that is sometimes at odds with ever-greater demand for safer products.

In Europe, for example, government regulators, aiming to raise levels of safety assurance, mandate manufacturers provide written risk assessments for new products prior to their release, import, use, and for accident reconstruction. Such analyses are supposed to be detailed and revealing, though they are often superficial. This may be one reason accidents involving products are often blamed on improperly done or inadequate risk assessments.

Other EU directives help protect workers from hazardous chemicals by requiring companies using the materials to perform a risk assessment. The reason: Studies show 30% of occupational diseases are the result of exposure to chemicals on the job. More recent regulations put the onus on chemical manufacturers to perform a comprehensive risk assessment for each identified use or exposure scenario involving its products. The action covers some 30,000 chemicals and compounds about which very little is known. It's not inconceivable that the same type of regulations could soon be applied to mechanical and electrical products.

In the United States, system-safety techniques have been used to generate detailed, independent design evaluations. The system-safety methodology is characterized by a standardized protocol, which applies systematic techniques to all parts of a system, product, or service. In other words, the approach encompasses what safety experts consider every possible hazard rather than an arbitrary set of known hazards. A recent book, Hazard Analysis Techniques for System Safety (Wiley), by Clifton Ericson, points out that highly trained specialists are needed to perform or supervise system-safety analyses. This probably explains why system-safety techniques are typically applied only to military and space systems, or in extraordinary cases when major and unresolvable problems arise with other designs.

Whatever the techniques employed, they should be commensurate with marketplace demands, the evolution of international expectations, compatible with existing trade standards, and in step with competitors' safety practices, all with an eye toward a universally lower tolerance for blunders.

Dr. George A. Peters is a licensed professional engineer, attorney, and psychologist. Got a question about safety? You can reach Dr. Peters at [email protected].

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