The safety geeks who rescue us before disaster happens
If your Christmas tree doesn’t go up in flames, thank the scientists at Underwriters Laboratory.
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UL isn’t a monopoly but it is the most well-known of about half a dozen test labs. The UL stamp is both ubiquitous and meaningful enough that, like the cheap electronic goods it’s stamped on, the label is being counterfeited in China.Skip to next paragraph
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“There are certain product categories more likely to be counterfeited. They’re the high volume, low cost items,” he says. “Extension cords. Night lights. Power cords.” And, this time of year, Christmas lights. For all products that it tests in China, UL uses a silver holographic label, making it more difficult to copy.
“We have one weapon in the factory.... The UL mark,” says Drengenberg. So UL guards it carefully, through a rigorous documentation process. Every product tested is photographed, all of its parts cataloged, and every test performed described in detail. If it passes, the manufacturer puts it on the assembly line – but at some point during production, a UL inspector will show up, unannounced, for a spot-check, making sure the company is using all the same parts UL saw on the prototype.
“I’ve gone to factories in the Far East and said, ‘Where is the circuit board soldered? I have to measure the temperature of the solder,’ ” Drengenberg remembers. “So they put me in a car, take me down the street, down some alleys, and we enter somebody’s house, and there in the living room is the little solder pot, and a man and a woman are soldering circuit boards.”
Drengenberg started as an intern after college, where he studied circuit engineering. He moved up the testing ranks and today is the global consumer affairs manager. He says he’s a geek, and confesses that a lifetime of setting safety standards can dull a party pretty quickly: “We don’t like balloons. They’re one of the main choking hazards for little children. We’re not a fun group. We don’t like candles, either.”
But sometimes, policing products can be a good time, like when the day is filled by testing TV picture tubes. The tubes only work in a vacuum, which means they’re constantly under thousands of pounds of pressure. Accidentally hit the TV the wrong way, and you might dislodge the tube. UL tests the safety steel that’s supposed to catch a tube in that case.
When it works, “it hits the front piece and harmlessly falls inside the television,” he says, “instead of blasting out the front like a hand grenade.” It’d be a serious injury, but so far he’s never heard of it happening, so Drengenberg indulges a little humor. “We see failures, and they’re such fun. They blow sky high.” From just a standard 12-inch TV? “Yeah – 27 inches is better. More glass.”
UL can’t do anything about products they don’t see, including lead-laden toys from China. Sometimes if they test electric toys, they’ll test for lead in paint. But if the Thomas the Tank Engine set under your Christmas tree isn’t motorized, you probably won’t find a UL stamp on it.
Meeting safety thresholds requires patience and ingenuity. Take the refrigerator-door test. The door is one of the most potentially lethal components of the appliance. UL designed an automated green metal contraption to open and close the door 300,000 times, six times a minute, over several days.
“That’s just the conditioning; that’s not the test,” Drengenberg explains. The lab wants to make sure that, after a fridge has exhausted itself, the door doesn’t get stuck. So, on the 300,001 rotation, “we put a gauge on the door, we pull it open, and if it takes less than 15 pounds of pressure [to open], it passes.... Children still die in old refrigerators because they’re disposed of ... on somebody’s back porch.... It might be a fort, or a sibling will say, ‘Get in there, you’re in jail,’ and they fit.” But, he says, they only have 15 pounds of force in them to kick the door open.
Harder than gaming out disasters and writing standards to prevent them is gauging how well the standards really work. “The fire department can count the number of people that didn’t get hurt. They can say, ‘We carried three people down our ladder,’ ” Drengenberg says. “We don’t know. Last night, there wasn’t a fire in Brooklyn or Chicago, and nobody got killed. But there might have been.”