Economic Education for Safety

Teachers of PSHE education for young people in Key Stage 4 and 5 may find this article useful. It provides an overview of the risks young people may face if they buy second hand goods, either on-line or from charity shops or car boot sales. Recycling may seem good for the environment and will help to balance the budget but what can young people do to make sure they are buying safe goods? What can they do to avoid buying counterfeit goods, especially alcohol and tobacco, which can be very harmful? Check out the top tips from RoSPA's product safety adviser, Philip Le Shirley.

Young consumers at risk – Buying second hand can be risky

Based on an article in Safety Education Autumn 2011 by Philip Le Shirley and Jenny McWhirter

Young people may not think of themselves as consumers or of the need for wariness over product safety. Two news stories show how they need to be alert.

"A trend for wearing coloured contact lenses inspired by the pop singer Lady Gaga could damage people's eyes, opticians warn. Problems range from allergic reactions to corneal ulcers or corneal scarring."

"In April 2007, six Oxford University students narrowly escaped death as a potentially deadly carbon monoxide leak was discovered in their student digs. Had it not been for their parent's encouragement to fit an audible carbon monoxide alarm in the house, these students could have lost their lives."

This article highlights the risks and provides some top tips for young people when buying – and selling – second hand goods.

In a recession

The most obvious effect of the economic downturn among young people is a growing dependence on second-hand goods. Pawn shops, charity shops, car boot sales and second hand retailers on and off-line have thrived in the last few years as consumers (especially the young) choose to buy from them.

Often young consumers see buying and selling second hand goods as contributing to a good cause, or a form of recycling, helping to save the planet as well as their pocket. Our concern is that many second hand goods are unsafe and there is no statutory testing which needs to occur before they can be sold.

Electrical goods

Electrical appliances are among the most popular products for young consumers to buy and sell, especially on-line via sites like eBay or Gumtree.

Second hand electrical equipment must be as safe as that purchased new from shops. Examples of appliances to which the regulations apply include hair dryers and straighteners, computers and computer games consoles and televisions as well as white goods such as cookers, fridges, washing machines, electric fires and lamps.

All electrical equipment should have adequate insulation and/or earthing, no access to live parts and adequate guarding against moving parts. In addition they should have an approved three pin plug fitted (marked with BEAB, ASTA or BSI), no worn cables or flexes and necessary instructions for safe use and maintenance.

The biggest problem with electrical goods is "wear and tear". Products such as irons and hair dryers can be purchased in a perfectly safe condition new, and then suffer frayed cords as time passes. By the time that they are sold second-hand these once-safe products are unsafe and the law does not expressly require an electrician to test the goods before they are re-sold (although this is best practice).

Another problem with second hand electrical goods is that the manufacturer's instructions and packaging may be missing. This is where important safety information can be found. If you buy something electrical without safety information, try checking the manufacturer's website for information.

A home away from home

Students and young people setting up their first home-away-from-home need to be aware that some second hand furniture can be a fire risk.

Second hand upholstered furniture must comply with certain flammability requirements. The only exception is for furniture made before 1950. The requirements apply to certain items of domestic furniture including sofas, beds, cushions, and children's furniture. All furniture which meets the requirements of the Regulations is required to be labelled, when new, with a permanent fire label. Checks should be made for the labels, which are usually under the main cushion or on the base of the furniture.

The problem with upholstered furniture is that many people cut out these permanent labels when they buy the furniture new because they think they spoil the look of the item. When the furniture is then resold second-hand there is no way of telling whether the unlabelled product is safe or not.

The danger then is that consumers purchase unsafe furniture which is unlabelled, as these will sit alongside other unlabelled (but safe) products. Once again the manufacturer, if known, should be able to provide information about when it was made and how safe it is.

Gas appliances

Second hand domestic gas cookers must be safe and should ideally be checked thoroughly by a competent person prior to supply. They must have clear markings on the controls, suitable pan supports and tap handles which are easy to use but cannot be turned on accidentally. In addition they must ignite quickly, have oven doors which seal in hot gases, instructions for how to use them safety, flames which are stable and a shut off device which turns off the gas if the flame is accidentally extinguished.

Most second hand cookers are liable to fall short of these requirements (most likely through missing instructions for safe use). Of even more concern is that gas appliances must be fitted by a "Gas Safe" registered engineer and when money is tight the danger is that young consumers may either try to install the produce themselves, or use an unsafe, unregistered fitter. To find a registered gas fitter go to: Registered gas fitters can be identified by a Gas Safe Register ID Card.

Toy story

Young parents are under particular pressure economically and may well buy toys and other goods for their children second hand. The rule here is that toys should be as safe second hand as they are new. In general terms they must not be flammable and have no loose physical or mechanical parts, e.g. loose eyes or buttons, sharp edges or finger trapping hazards. In addition they must contain no toxic substances or paint, be hygienic, and be marked with any appropriate instructions and warnings for use.

There are two obvious hazards with second hand toys. The first is that toys are used so much that they break or become unsafe and then are sold on. The second is that the original packaging is usually long since discarded. Packaging will normally bear not only the CE mark (indicating that the produce is safe) but also instructions and warnings. The most important of these warnings is suitability for children under 36 months (choking hazards). Once again, manufacturer's websites may prove useful.

Many other products can be safe when purchased new, but become unsafe by the time they are sold second hand. Examples include bicycles, pushchairs and sports equipment. In addition there are some products which should never be purchased second hand unless the full history of the product can be ascertained.

Child safety equipment

These include children's car seats and protective headwear (including crash helmets). The reason that these should never be purchased second hand is that the purchaser – and often the seller – has no way of knowing whether the product has been involved in an accident and is now structurally unsound. Unfortunately, due to the economic climate many young people simply do not have any other choice but to purchase these products second hand, hence the risk posed to them.

Is it real or fake?

A separate, but equally concerning area is counterfeit goods which are sold as brand new. Products which pose particular risks to young people include counterfeit electrical chargers, toys and cosmetics. These will often be found at market stalls and car boot sales and many have been found to be dangerously unsafe when tested.

Of course, for young people with less money in their pocket these products can present a much more appealing alternative to second hand goods. They are cheap, but look exactly like the real thing. Often young people will not be concerned whether the goods have "fallen off the back of a lorry" or are counterfeit as long as they are cheap.

In the health arena counterfeit cigarettes and alcohol pose a serious problem for young people. They often contain dangerous levels of harmful chemicals. Again, these look identical to the real products and taste similar. Young people often think that these are non-duty paid items (smuggled!) and welcome the opportunity to buy them (especially as the prices can be as low as half the price of the genuine products).

Young people may not always be aware what they are consuming. This is where enforcement comes in.

Trading Standards officers enforce the Regulations applicable to all of these products. However, the Comprehensive Spending Review of 2010 led to many local authorities cutting the budgets of trading standards services, often leading to less staff on the ground. In 2007 the Rogers Review examined 60 policy areas for local authorities. The Rogers Review recommended that Government should specify five priorities for local authority trading standards and environmental health services.

Conspicuous by its absence from the Roger's review was product safety and this has contributed to a decreased focus on product safety enforcement by local authorities. The work is still done well and is taken very seriously – it just is not given enough resource to be carried out truly effectively at a local level.

At a national level the key area of concern is the scant border controls at our ports. There is simply not enough resource available to test all consignments of goods coming into the country and as such many counterfeit and unsafe goods pass straight through to our market places. Work is being done in this area by regional trading standards groups with Government funding.

The economic downturn and shift in focus away from product safety enforcement affects us all. It affects the young especially though as they are more naïve about the risks posed by unsafe goods and when starting out in life they often have to compromise between cost and quality. It is through these compromises that young people may be putting themselves at risk.

Top tips for buying second hand goods

  • Check the packaging and any product information for safety advice. If there is no packaging and you can identify the product clearly, check the manufacturer's website
  • Check furniture for labels which indicate the flammability
  • Make sure all electrical goods have fitted plugs and that cables are not frayed
  • Employ a qualified electrician or gas fitter to install cookers
  • Check toys for CE marks which mean they are safe. Remember loose or small items can be a choking hazard for babies and young children
  • Don't buy safety equipment such as car seats and cycle helmets second hand. Get bikes and buggies checked by someone who knows what to look for
  • New goods for sale cheaply may be stolen, smuggled or counterfeit. There is often no way to tell the difference, but counterfeit cigarettes and alcohol may be even more harmful than the real thing
  • Make safety a priority when giving feedback about sellers on internet sites. If the seller provided all the packaging and safety information give them an extra big thank you!
  • If in doubt ask. If you are not happy with the answer, don't buy.

Selling items second hand

  • Try to provide all the original packaging and leaflets that come with the product
  • Check for worn or loose parts and get them repaired before you sell
  • If it's an electrical item get it checked before you put it up for sale
  • If in doubt, don't sell or give away, take it to your local recycling centre
  • If you suspect goods you have bought cheaply are counterfeit, or are in any way unsafe, inform your local trading standards officer, you may be helping to save a life!

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