If your business supplies products to consumers, you need to make sure the products are safe.
The heaviest responsibility falls on producers, eg the manufacturer of a product. But distributors - such as shops and wholesalers - also have legal responsibilities.
Failing to meet your responsibilities can have serious consequences. You could face legal action with possible fines or even imprisonment. You could also be sued by anyone who has been injured or has suffered damage to personal property as a result of using your product.
This guide outlines the basics of product liability and product safety law. It will help you understand how you are affected and what action you need to take.
Your responsibilities as a producer , distributor or seller
By law, products sold to consumers must be safe. The main responsibility falls on producers, manufacturers and importers to ensure that products are safe by:
- warning consumers about potential risks
- providing information to help consumers understand the risks
- monitoring the safety of products
- taking action if a safety problem is found
You need to take an active approach to preventing safety problems, otherwise you risk being sued, fined or imprisoned.
Particular care should be taken with high-risk products such as toys, fireworks, food and medicines. You should also be aware of the specific regulations which apply to such products. Read safety leaflets on the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) website.
See how to ensure your products are safe.
Producers and distributors must inform their local authority (typically, the Trading Standards Department). Download the unsafe product notification guidance for businesses from on the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) website (PDF, 326K).
Even if you don’t manufacture the products you sell, you will still have safety responsibilities. You must not sell any product which you know, or should know, is unsafe. You can find recent product recall notices on the TSI website.
You can visit the Association of British Insurers website to download liability insurance guidance for small businesses (PDF, 46KB).
The main responsibility for product safety falls on producers. This includes:
- businesses that supply own-brand products
- businesses that change the safety of a product - for example, by customising or servicing it
Often, several businesses are involved as producers and can be jointly liable if a product causes harm. For example, several component makers might supply parts to a manufacturer that assembles the product.
Distributors - eg shops and wholesalers - are not normally liable for harm to consumers or their property caused by an unsafe product, as long as they identify the producer. But distributors do have some responsibility for safety and can face enforcement action.
Anyone who is harmed by an unsafe product could sue. They can begin their court case up to three years from the date of the injury. In some cases, they can even sue up to ten years after the product was sold.
If you’re involved in producing or supplying consumer products, you will need to take practical steps to prevent problems.
You can also download a guide to the Consumer Protection Act 1987 from the BIS website (PDF, 206K
It’s strongly advisable to insure your business against potential damages claims.
If you are liable for harm caused by an unsafe product, you can be sued by anyone who is harmed - even if they didn’t buy the product themselves.
You can be sued for compensation for death or injury. You can also be sued for damage or loss of private property caused by faulty goods if the damage amounts to at least £275. The amount that can be claimed will depend on the harm suffered. There is no upper limit.
Many businesses take product liability insurance to protect them from legal costs and damages awards.
Enforcement authorities can take action if they think unsafe products are being supplied.
Trading Standards officers in local councils are responsible for most safety enforcement. Some special products, such as food and medicines, are dealt with by other authorities. Check with your local Trading Standards office if you are unsure. You can find your local Trading Standards office on the TSI website.
Trading Standards officers can buy or seize goods to check they are safe. They can also enter your premises to see whether you are breaking the rules. If they think your products are unsafe, they can:
- order you to stop selling them
- go to court and ask for the products to be destroyed
- prosecute you - if convicted you could be fined or imprisoned
- demand the recall of an unsafe product
Defending a product liability claim
If someone sues you under product liability laws, your first step is to consider who is liable. If you are a distributor, such as a shop, you may not be liable if you can identify the original producer.
If you’re the producer and you believe the problem was caused by a fault in your production process, you may want to admit liability and settle the claim. Alternatively, you will need to prove one of six defences:
1. You did not supply the product. For example, you are not liable if a product is stolen or is a fake copy of one of your products.
2. You could not reasonably be expected to discover the safety fault. For example, if scientific evidence first comes to light after you have manufactured or sold your product.
3. The safety fault was an inevitable result of obeying other laws.
4. Someone else caused the fault after you supplied the product.
5. You didn’t supply the product in the course of business. For example, the law does not apply to private gifts.
6. If you make components, you are not liable if you can show that the manufacturer who assembled the product caused the fault. For example, the manufacturer might have made a poorly designed product or ordered the wrong components from you.
You can’t defend yourself simply on the basis that a user was careless. But if you can show that they contributed to a problem, the amount of damages may be reduced.
If Trading Standards take enforcement action against you under product safety rules, you can also choose to defend yourself. You need to prove you did everything that could reasonably be expected. If you’re successful, you may get compensation for any loss suffered - eg if Trading Standards destroyed your goods.
You should be aware that court cases are usually expensive and complicated. Take professional legal advice before taking any action.
Preventing product safety problems
Producers, manufacturers, importers and suppliers all have a responsibility to ensure that products are safe. You should:
- consider safety at every stage, from initial design through to selling
- check whether there are any specific regulations or safety standards applying to your product and that you meet them
- See how to ensure your products are safe.
In addition, suppliers must:
- give customers any safety information provided by the producer
- investigate safety complaints, and tell the manufacturer
- co-operate with Trading Standards officers
Think about ways to protect yourself if you are sued such as by purchasing product liability insurance to cover damages and legal costs.
If you think you’re at risk, take advice from your business adviser or solicitor. Your trade association may also be able to give you information about standards and best practice in your industry.
Product liability and taking out insurance
It’s a criminal offence for manufacturers to supply unsafe products. They may also be liable under civil law for any harm such products cause - which could result in costly legal proceedings.
The Consumer Protection Act 1987 makes manufacturers strictly liable for death, injury, loss or damage caused by defective (unsafe) products.
If a finished product contains a defect in a particular component, both the product manufacturer and component manufacturer may be liable.
You can download the guide to the product liability and safety provisions of the Consumer Protection Act 1987.
Other suppliers, such as wholesalers and retailers, are not liable unless they fail to identify the producer when asked to do so by a person who has suffered harm.
But customers can sue retailers under laws on the sale of goods.
You should take positive action to monitor the safety of your products. You should also make sure you are covered by product liability insurance if you manufacture or repair products, and possibly if you sell them, too.
Insurance will provide valuable protection for your business against any costs or compensation awarded. Although it’s not a legal requirement to have this type of insurance, it could mean the survival of your business should a claim be made against you.
You can visit the Association of British Insurers website to download liability insurance guidance for small businesses
Product Safety for Manufacturers
Under the Sale of Goods Act 1979, all products must be ‘fit for purpose’, be of satisfactory quality and fit its description. This means that your products must fulfil the purpose the customer has been led to expect and the reasons that led them to buy it.
The Act also covers any purpose that a customer asks about when the product is purchased and is guaranteed by the retailer to meet that purpose when it is sold. If a product is not fit for purpose, the customer is within their rights to have the goods replaced or repaired.
You can find Sale of Goods Act guidance on the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) website.
By definition, good design will lead to safe design. While meeting your legal obligations is the minimum required, it is a good idea to go further and take best practice on board throughout the design, production, supply and disposal stages.
As a manufacturer or supplier you could be held liable in any legal action for harm caused to consumers or businesses as a result of unintended side-effects or the failure of products manufactured or supplied by you.
Your manufacturing and processing systems must comply with environmental law. You can read guidance to help you keep up with your environmental responsibilities on the Environment Agency website.
See this guide on CE marking.
Products covered by specific safety regulations
A CE mark is a manufacturer’s claim that its product meets specified essential safety requirements set out in relevant European directives.
Certain categories of products must bear CE marking if you intend to sell them in:
- the EU
- member states of the European Economic area (EEA) - Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway
The following categories of products require CE marking if you wish to sell them within the EU or member states of the EEA:
- electrical products
- construction products
- pressure vessels
- telecommunications equipment
- medical devices
- machinery, equipment and safety components
- personal protective equipment
- satellite station equipment
- gas appliances
- pressure equipment
- appliances (other than gas)
- non-automatic weighing instruments and equipment
- measuring instruments
- recreational craft
- lift machinery
- equipment and protective systems for explosive atmospheres
- in vitro diagnostic medical devices
- marine equipment
- safety components and subsystems for incorporation into cableway installations
- cableway equipment (ski tows etc)
The requirement for CE marking and the exact process you will need to go through varies from product to product. Different types of product are governed by different European directives. For example, the trade of certain machinery, equipment and safety components is governed by the Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations 2008. The regulations implement a European directive aimed at removing technical barriers to trade.
Under the regulations, products that conform to the relevant safety standards are CE marked and can be placed on the market across the EEA. Responsibility for ensuring compliance with the regulations rests with the manufacturer of the machinery, equipment or components in question. Failure to do so can result in prosecution.
Download guidance on the Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations.
Where an item of equipment is covered by more than one directive, it must be CE marked under all applicable directives.
If you supply consumer products which aren’t covered by these specific directives, they must not be CE marked. However, you still have a general duty to ensure they are safe for normal or reasonably foreseeable use under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005.
You can also see this guide on CE marking.
Packaging includes all products used to contain, protect, handle, deliver or present goods. It includes returnable and non-returnable items such as boxes, pallets, labels, containers, tubes, bags, sacks, timber, glass, metals, plastics and ceramics. It can also include tape, wrapping, binding and tying materials.
You should check that your packaging is designed with safety in mind. The packaging should protect your product in transit and protect your customer from potential injury.
By opting to use a safety-led choice of packaging, your business will benefit from meeting legal demands, saving money and promoting an efficient image to suppliers and customers.
The EU-wide Classification, Labelling and Packaging of substances and mixtures Regulation (CLP) and the GB’s Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging for Supply) Regulations 2009 (CHIP) govern the labelling and packaging of hazardous/dangerous chemicals. Suppliers must:
- identify the hazards of the chemical
- give information to their customers about the hazards/dangers, usually on the package itself (such as a label) and provide a safety data sheet (SDS) if the chemicals are to be used at work (provision of an SDS comes under the EU-wide Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of CHemicals Regulation - REACH)
- package the chemical safely
CLP has applied to the labels and packaging of hazardous substances since 1 December 2010. It will apply to the labels and packaging of mixtures (called preparations under CHIP) from 1 June 2015 - however, CLP labels and packaging can be used for mixtures prior to that date.
The CHIP Regulations were amended to bring them into line with the EU-wide CLP and REACH regulations. The eventual aim is to have a globally harmonised system for the classification and labelling of hazardous chemicals. Once the CLP requirements for mixtures apply, it is anticipated that the CHIP regulations will be repealed. For more information see the guide on chemicals
Read about safety issues for chemicals packaging under CLP on the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) website
Read about safety issues for chemicals packaging under CHIP on the HSE website.
You must take further action if you want to transport dangerous goods. See the guide on moving goods by road
You must keep your use of packaging to a minimum, avoid the use of heavy metals and enable packaging to be recovered. If your business handles more than 50 tonnes of packaging in a year and has a turnover of more than £2 million, you must recover and recycle set amounts of packaging.
You don’t have to show particular information on the label for every kind of product, but if you include it you must be accurate. There are special rules for some products, and for retailers.
Labels must not be misleading about things like:
- quantity or size
- the price
- what it’s made of
- how, where and when it was made
- what you say it can do
- the people or organisations that endorse it
You must include safety information for products that could be dangerous.
Your business sector
You must follow special rules if you manufacture, distribute or sell:
Rules for retailers
- precious metals
- food and drink
- products for children
If you’re a retailer, you must display:
- the price of products - this must be in sterling (pounds and pence) and include VAT where applicable
- the price of a single item (the ‘unit price’) for products that you sell loose
- metric measures (like kilograms, centimetres or litres) for unit pricing - except for some products (for example, beer is still sold in pints)
If you don’t follow the rules you can be prosecuted.
Talk to your local Trading Standards office if you have questions about how to label your products correctly.
Further help and information
Where to get more help
The following links will provide further information on product liability, product safety and sustainability.
The Design Council encourages businesses to understand the design process and to incorporate it into their strategic planning. Find out more on the Design Council website.
HSE has a section on its website called ‘Designers Can Do More’ that looks at issues such as legislation, training and best practice in the design process. Read information for designers on the HSE website.
BIS provides wide-ranging support for businesses. Read about support for businesses on the BIS website.
BSI provides useful information relating to standards, certification and legislation, together with comprehensive details of CE marking. Read about standards and CE marking on the BSI website.
WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) provides a broad range of information and advice on environmental issues including eco-design and packaging. Read information and advice on environmental issues on their website.
You can also contact the Envirowise Advice Line on 0800 585 794 for two hours of free advice.
020 8996 9001
Communities and Local Government Helpline
0303 444 0000
WRAP Resource Efficiency Helpline
0808 100 2040
Environment Agency Helpline
03708 506 506
BIBA Consumer Helpline
0870 950 1790