5,200 employees and 13 laboratoriesworldwide. It oversees more than 700safety standards and runs 89,000 prod-uct investigations a year.A walk through UL’s Northbrook,Ill., headquarters and testing facilitieshighlights the varied products vying forthe UL mark — window glass, roofingshingles and wallboard; bulletproof vests, safes and locks; TVs, CD playersand pinball machines; vacuum cleaners,toasters and pizza ovens; hair dryers,garbage disposals and flashlights; med-ical beds, garage doors and even pet-bed warmers.“We don’t test for quality but forany foreseeable hazard — fire, shock,sharp edges, radiation,” explains JohnDrengenberg, UL manager of con-sumer affairs. “We look for the worstpossible conditions, simulate them andtest them to ensure that if a productfails, it fails safely.”So fire resistant safes are subjectedto 2,000 degrees of heat and thendropped the equivalent of five storiesonto broken cement blocks to makesure the safes won’t pop open and thepapers inside aren’t charred beyondlegibility. A hand-held hair dryer isdropped three times on hardwoodfloors to see if it breaks to the pointwhere consumers can come into con-tact with live wires and be shocked orelectrocuted. The cord is flexed 3,000times — 10 times per minute — tomake sure it isn’t likely to break dur-ing normal use.TVs are deliberately short-circuitedto see if they start fires. A refrigeratordoor is opened and closed 300,000times to see if the door can still beopened from the inside so childrencan’t get trapped after it is discarded.For pop-up toasters, temperaturetests are run to see if cords, wires andplastic housing get too hot. But no testsare run to see what happens when foodgets stuck in the toaster, jams the heat-ing element to keep it from poppingup, then ignites — an increasingly com-mon problem as more consumers heatup large bread products likes bagelsand pastries. From 1993-96, there wereat least 30 fires caused by toasters thatfailed to shut off.UL has declined to add a food test,saying foods such as bread vary so muchthat it would be scientifically impossibleto create a test that could be repeatedprecisely in different labs around thecountry. It took UL two years to proposeanother solution — an automatic shut-off switch. But that proposal, issued latelast year, is not scheduled to take effectuntil 2002 at the earliest.Rade acknowleges that UL’s deci-sion-making process may seem slowand mysterious. “But that’s only becausewe’re an engineering organization,”she adds. “We pay very careful attentionto detail to make sure everything is inorder before issuing any announce-ment, decision or revision.“All UL standards are developed toanticipate real-world events,” she con-tinues. “If we don’t anticipate everything,if there’s a misuse of product we neverthought of, we change our standard.”UL officials are very proud of whatthey’ve accomplished. “The U.S. enjoysthe highest level of safety in the world— that’s indisputable. And one of thereasons the U.S. enjoys that is becauseUL has set the entire foundation forproduct-safety certification,” Radedeclares.
Fueling The Fire
But interviews with more than 50 fireexperts, safety officials, building-codeauthorities, engineers and lawyersaround the country and a review of thousands of pages of documentsobtained from court suits and the U.S.Consumer Product Safety Commission(CPSC) under the Freedom of Infor-mation Act highlight a number of con-cerns about UL:
UL’s safety tests may not reflectwhat happens in the real world. Morethan 350 ionization smoke detectors —which account for 90 percent of allsmoke detectors sold in the U.S. — havefailed to sound an alarm in residentialfires; about one-third of those samedetectors were sent back to the manu-facturer for retesting and were found tohave passed UL smoke standard.Joseph Fleming, Boston fire mar-shal and deputy fire chief, has con-cluded, after 10 years of study, that theionization smoke detector does notprovide sufficient protection in “coldsmoke,” or smoldering fires — onesnot hot enough to drive smokeupward toward the ceiling wheredetectors are placed. The reason, heclaims: UL’s smoldering-fire test waswritten more than 20 years ago anddoes not reflect different syntheticmaterials now used in upholsteryand mattresses.
SAFETYREVISTED:Over thepast severalyears,anumber ofUL-approvedproducts — halogenlamps,toasters,firesprinkler systems,ion-ization smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms — have caused fires or failed to prevent them whenoperating in “real world” conditions.
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