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Freelance journalist

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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
October 19, 2023


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Fire safety

Reducing chemical fire retardants at heart of government’s furniture and furnishings consultation

A new testing regime for upholstered furniture is set to replace the current regulations, in a bid to balance fire safety against the hazard of chemical fire retardants, as Ron Alalouff reports.

At the heart of the new proposals is a more flexible testing regime for conformity assessment, the use of voluntary British Standards as opposed to prescribed regulatory provisions, and a reduction in chemical fire retardants used in upholstered furniture. This approach is said to be consistent with current safety legislation for products such as toys and electrical equipment. The government consultation is due to close on 24 October 2023.

Credit: Unsplash

The new provisions will replace the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, which are widely credited to have substantially reduced fire deaths and injuries due to highly flammable upholstered furniture in homes.

However, in introducing the consultation, the government says this new approach will be based on “safety outcomes underpinned by a set of essential safety requirements… It will maintain and improve fire safety for consumers by better representing the safety of the product as it appears in their homes, while facilitating manufacturing innovation and a reduction in the use of chemical flame retardants.”

Who is affected by the proposed regulations?

Obligations will apply to manufacturers, importers and onward suppliers. Those operating further down the supply chain will be required to be appropriately diligent that they are supplying safe and compliant products, whether retailing furniture or renting property.

For conformity assessment and testing, manufacturers must, during the design and manufacture of an upholstered product, identify:

  • the applicable essential safety requirements and assess whether the product conforms with them
  • designated or other standards against which detailed tests of the upholstered product in its final form will be carried out

The requirement will be to test the final item of furniture, or a composite or representative sample. “This is designed to ensure that what is assessed is representative of the final item in consumers’ homes, and to assess real risk in a more effective way than separate component based testing [which happens under the current regulations],” says the consultation document.

“Final-item testing is also likely to support and facilitate innovative means of achieving compliance and, in many cases, may facilitate a reduction in the level of chemical flame retardants required”.

The document anticipates that the regulations will be supported by voluntary British Standards, co-ordinated and facilitated by BSI. The government will than have the opportunity to designate standards as providing a presumption of conformity with the legal requirements.

“This policy, and the approach of high-level safety outcomes supported by voluntary standards, aims to encourage genuine innovation. As such, manufacturers will also be able to identify and utilise other test methodologies to demonstrate compliance with the essential safety requirements, should they choose to.”

Mandatory permanent labelling

Credit: Unsplash

New provisions for permanent labelling of products are also proposed, designed to support second-hand selling and eventual recycling/disposal of furniture. The label must include:

  • The following words: “CARELESSNESS CAUSES FIRE DO NOT REMOVE THIS LABEL – this label is required for the product to be resold on the second-hand market, and to ensure the product is disposed of appropriately. This product complies with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 20XX”
  • The name and address of the manufacturer
  • The batch number or identification number (if any)
  • The date on which the product was manufactured
  • If the product contains chemical flame retardants, the words “This product contains chemical flame retardants to meet the requirements of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 20XX”
  • If the product contains chemical flame retardants, a list of those chemical flame retardants

Upholstered furniture and furnishings are among the items most likely to be bought second-hand, particularly by households on low incomes. So it’s important to list the chemical flame retardants used to ensure that if any are later restricted or banned, they are made known to consumers before they buy second-hand.

Technical file

In order to ensure traceability, manufacturers are required to produce a technical file and retain it for 10 years from when the product is placed on the market.

The file must include various pieces of information including details of the manufacturer and supplier of upholstery materials, identification of the standards and tests that were carried out and details of the accredited laboratory, a list of any chemical fire retardants, and evidence that they are only included to comply with a flame retardant technology hierarchy (which is designed to reduce the use of flame retardant chemicals and encourage the use of inherently flame-retardant materials), and the declaration of conformity.

Credit: Unsplash

There is also a set of essential provisions for re-upholstered or repaired products. The added upholstery (when it is used as intended or in a foreseeable way) and any foam used must not readily ignite when it comes into contact with a flaming or non-flaming ignition source, and if ignited, must either self-extinguish or burn slowly.

Suppliers of added upholstery must also carry out a conformity assessment, and ensure they have documentation demonstrating that the components have passed relevant tests against designated or other standards at an accredited laboratory. They must attach a permanent label (in addition to the original label) to the upholstered product, to indicate the added upholstery’s compliance with the requirements of the regulations.

Anyone supplying an upholstered product online must ensure that the information set out on the permanent label (or labels in the case of re-upholstered products) is “displayed prominently” on the specific web page.

It is also proposed that outdoor upholstered furniture remains subject to the safety provisions unless manufacturers affix an ‘outdoor upholstered product warning label’. This label essentially warns against using or storing the product indoors, due to the risk of fire.

A “new approach”

In a foreword to the document, Kevin Hollinrake MP, Minister for Enterprise, Markets and Small Business, said: “The Government is clear that upholstered furniture placed on the market in the UK must be fire safe to protect consumers in their homes. The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 have reduced deaths by fire and are recognised and recommended internationally as a gold standard for furniture fire safety to this day.

“However, a new approach is needed to ensure that domestic upholstered furniture continues to be fire safe, and to ensure high levels of consumer protection in the modern home. It will be more proportionate, and better reflect the risk to consumers of harm from fire and from exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. The new approach will also deal with the challenges of modern sources of ignition, and is designed to keep pace with changes in manufacturing practices and consumer behaviour.”

The government is proposing that the new provisions will take effect on 1 October 2024, with a transitional period to 1 April 2026 when manufacturers will still be able to place products on the market that comply with the 1988 regulations.

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