UL vs. ETL vs. CSA vs. CE vs. NSF
Safety certifications are taken for granted, but they shouldn’t be.
Websites like AliExpress, Banggood and Joybuy have made it easy to buy factory-direct products from China. And many of these wholesale products are later resold on U.S. sites like eBay and Amazon. How can Americans be sure that these “no name” products are safe to use?
Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories are a big help.
The Importance of UL and ETL Certification Programs
“UL” and “ETL” logos appear on many of the products that we use every day. Those marks belong to Underwriters Laboratories and Intertek Group plc, two standards organizations that have upheld safety practices since the 1800s. These certification marks shouldn’t be taken for granted, however.
For many products imported into the U.S., “there are no mandatory safety standards,” according to ChinaImportal, an agency specializing in compliance issues. When hoverboards were catching fire in 2015, Amazon banned all boards that didn’t use UL-certified batteries. Virtually no hoverboard manufacturers met basic safety standards at that time.
Manufacturers who apply for third-party certifications allow underwriters to audit production facilities and products. This commitment to accountability doesn’t come cheaply. Certifying a single product can cost more than $10,000 and some of these compliance costs are passed along to consumers. However, the premium is often justified.
Phrases like “melted plastic,” “smell smoke” or “caught fire” appear in many online reviews, along with photographic evidence. (I discovered this while researching smart plugs, LED strip lights, heating pads and jump starters.)
Third-party testing labs exist to minimize these types of risks.
If It Touches Foods or Liquids, Look for NSF-Certification
“NSF International has a professional staff of engineers, microbiologists, toxicologists, chemists, public health experts and certification specialists in locations worldwide,” according to NSF.org.
The organization, formerly the National Sanitation Foundation, was founded in 1944 to develop standards for soda fountain and luncheonette equipment. Today, NSF International develops public health standards and certifies a wide range of products like cookware, dietary supplements and hot tubs.
Additionally, NSF works with other trusted third-parties like the Canadian Standards Association (CSA).
Is “CSA” As Good As “UL” or “ETL?”
All Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories are equally trustworthy in the eyes of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The U.S. currently recognizes 19 of these laboratories and their corresponding certification marks, including UL, ETL and CSA. There is no clear evidence to indicate that one lab is better than another, however, two labs have had their status revoked or denied by OSHA within the last 15 years.
Why Doesn’t the U.S. Have a Standard Like Europe’s “CE?”
Only a fraction of consumer products are tested by independent labs. If the U.S. were to mandate that every product carry a safety certification mark, it might result in lower standards overall. Even if these organizations were able to scale their certification services, it would be difficult to monitor and police fraudulently-used marks. Europe knows this pain.
The European Economic Area’s product- and safety-standards are denoted with a “CE” when met. However, each member state is responsible for surveilling the use of the CE mark. That’s a not-so-standard standard.
Counterintuitively, letting private companies surveil product safety may result in higher standards overall.
The World Will Never Be 100% Safe
No organization, no matter how respected, can protect us from every hazard in life. (For example, cooking fire deaths in the U.S. have increased by 124% over the last decade.) In the end, how we use products is just as important as how we shop for them and no certification mark can save us from ourselves.
About the Author: John DeFeo documented the construction of two LEED-certified PSEG customer service centers in New Jersey. He also worked in the electrical department on several short films.