Colleges liable to new safety laws

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Further education colleges involved in helping industry develop new consumer products have much to gain - educationally and financially - but need to be aware of the legal pitfalls such links can pose.

New European regulations designed to ensure all products sold to the general public are safe or carry sufficient warnings of risks, could apply to colleges working with manufacturers in the design and testing of new goods such as mobile telephones, car components or anything destined to be used by consumers, rather than purely commercial sales.

The General Product Safety Regulations (GPSR), introduced in Britain in October, are designed to harmonise consumer protection measures across the Union.

GPSR is largely based on the Consumer Protection Act of 1987 - which made it a criminal offence to supply or offer goods which could pose a risk to consumers.

But some lawyers believe the new regulations widen the scope of the Act - placing a legal duty on all those involved in the supply chain of goods from production to sale, actively to ensure they are safe for use - through reviewing safety during product development and later monitoring safety issues once the product is in the marketplace. In the same way that value-added tax is passed from business to business before finally being paid by High Street consumers, the GPSR forces all in the supply chain to check that they are observing the safety requirements with those firms or outlets above or below them in the chain.

A college which is involved, say, in the development and testing of an electronic mobile phone, could be classed a producer under GPSR and be liable to up to three months in prison or a fine of Pounds 5,000 if it failed to ensure the gadget's safety.

Jim Crewdson, Dean of Technology at Blackburn College, says the regulations are unlikely to affect adversely the relationship many colleges have with industry - only one-fifth of the work of his college with industry leads to prototypes or products that would come under GPSR - but it is essential to be aware of them.

"We have to use a mineshaft as an environment to test electrical products before they are sent to market.

"Imagine what would happen if a mobile phone brought down a Boeing 747 because of the signals it gave off?" Business, industry and colleges have to be aware of the precise technical specifications involved in product design, but GPSR increases their responsibility to ensure the general safety of end-users.

"Colleges will have to be aware of this law, will have to understand it and obey it, just like any other provider of business services," he says.

"Like businesses, we are now in the market offering various services and some of these will fall within the scope of the regulations."

Knowledge of the new regulations is of particular importance to colleges involved in product testing or design as they will come at the top of the supply chain. Colleges in this position must check their terms and conditions with businesses lower down the chain to ensure compliance with GPSR. "The result of this work as well as the law will be taught to students, because they too will need to be aware of the law in their future careers," Mr Crewdson added.

Stephen Sidkin, a commercial lawyer and practice development partner at City law firm Fox Williams in London, says that colleges working in partnership with industry in the design and testing of any product should be aware of the penalties for failing to observe the law.

"The regulations use the term 'supply chain' but don't define it. We don't know whether the supply chain is limited to pure physical supply or if it's possible for it to extend from design through manufacture, transport to retailer.

"If a college is involved in the design of product and the design affects the safety properties of the product then the college will be treated as a producer for the purposes of the regulations with all that attaches to that term. "

A spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry says it wasn't felt necessary to alert colleges to the new regulations as they were "little changed" from the Consumer Protection Act.

If there was a dispute over product liability - the right of people injured by defective goods to sue for damages - the manufacturer would be responsible, under the Consumer Protection Act, but where there was an issue of criminal liability colleges could be held responsible if they had worked on the development of the product.

"A college actively involved with industry in the development of product - such as working a project up to prototype stage - could be potentially liable under the GPS regulations," she says, adding that section 40 of the CPA also covers this area.

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