Fakes and Worker Health and Safety – A Hidden Killer!

We are likely all aware of reports that off-spec, counterfeit and inferior quality medicines are being sold to developing countries (if not check out this article by Newton et al1 for a good overview of the problem).   We have also probably read reports of certain pesticides, which are not permitted for use in industrialized countries, are being exported to developing countries – see Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) for the United Nations for more details.

In a similar manner, there have been many recent reports of poor quality foods and products being sent from developing countries to the west, e.g., contaminated pet food and lead-paint toys2.  (Definitely a case of what goes around comes around…..)

For those of us who have spent time working in less developed countries, we are not at all surprised when we are faced with issues of poor quality/counterfeit equipment and materials at the job site.   Procurement and Quality Control personnel definitely have their hands full making sure that materials that arrive on the job site meet the purchase conditions and are acceptable for use. 

What is less appreciated, however, particularly by those managers that are working in the head office distant from day-to-day site issues, are the HSE issues associated with inferior equipment and materials at the job site.  While I do not spend a lot of time on site (I am now usually at my desk working on the computer) I have seen a lot of these issues in the past, most notably while working at construction sites in Afghanistan, including:

  • Counterfeit fire extinguishers
  • Counterfeit hard hats
  • Counterfeit lifting slings
  • Poor quality cement that doesn’t meet stated strength or quality ratings
  • Poor quality rebar that snaps in half and splinters when bent
  • “Safety” glasses that shatter into sharp/splinter when bent

But these are really only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. 

A quick search on the web provides millions of hits for counterfeit and poor-quality goods and materials and HSE equipment.  Some of the notable ones of relevance to HSE personnel include:

  • Counterfeit PPE garments3
  • Counterfeit face masks and respirators4
  • Counterfeit construction cranes5
  • Piping – counterfeit valves6
  • Electrical products – circuit breakers7
  • Fasteners - ratchet tie-down without Strap8
  • Hoisting and rigging – shackles9

I know that readers of the blog will be able to name countless other examples.

So, What’s the Problem?

Do I really need to spell this out?  For those that may not be aware, there are many problems. 

First and foremost, these types of counterfeit, off-spec, inferior-quality goods may result in unsafe conditions that puts people at risk of injury or death. 

This is not hyperbole, as there are many well-documented cases where fake equipment and goods have resulted in fatalities, both in developed and developing countries.  For instance:

  • Nearly 400 people were reportedly killed in the US over a 15-year period because of counterfeit nuts and bolts.
  • On two separate occasions chain slings from the same source failed whilst a lift was being performed, well below their safe working limit. The lift plan and slinging arrangement techniques were appropriate for the task, and all of the slings were new prior to the start of the operations10.
  • A study by the Bangladesh government reportedly stated that "poor quality of iron rods and cement"were among the "series of irregularities" that caused the collapse of a building housing garment factories.

If that is not enough reason to avoid counterfeit and poor quality equipment, goods and materials, then be aware that their use can also lead to spills or releases to the environment, extensive damage to equipment, and delays that impact project schedules and cost increases.  So they can directly impact your company’s bottom line.

I Agree. This is a Serious Problem, But What Can I Do About It?

That is a good question and not necessarily an easy one to answer.   As an HSE professional you are generally not responsible for procurement or for inspection/quality control and acceptance of materials and goods that arrive on site.  You are also often faced with the realities of dealing with managers and owners that may be more concerned with profit than with HSE issues.

At the same time, recognize that you are directly responsible for the health and safety of workers at your site.  Have no illusions.  If something goes terribly wrong at your site, then fingers will likely be pointing in your direction.  In the worst case, you’ll end up looking through bars wondering what you did to deserve that fate!

So, you owe it to yourself, your workers and your company to make sure that everyone is aware of the HSE issues associated with counterfeit and poor quality goods.  To that end, I suggest you consider the following actions:

  1. Buy Real Stuff - Encourage Purchasing Department to buy products from the manufacturer’s authorized distributors or re-sellers.
  2. Beware of “Bargains” - If the price seems too good to be true, then it unfortunately probably is. If you are in a position to do so, discuss this with Purchasing and try to provide input on the so-called bargains.  At the same time, there are of course many high-quality and low-priced products that are just as suitable as brand names.  These are not counterfeits nor are they inferior.  Be aware and test items where possible -  buyer beware is the key here. 
  3. Looks Carefully at Labels and Packaging - Counterfeiters can be clever and it can be difficult for a non-expert to determine if the product is real or fake. Some tell-tale signs are if a product appears to be tampered or altered, or has missing information, sloppy finish/labels, etc.  If in doubt, there are also many web sites that show examples or real and counterfeit goods.
  4. Contact the Original Manufacturer - If a product is suspected of being fake, then contact the original manufacturer; they will be able to confirm.
  5. Document, Document, Document – Unfortunately, if something goes wrong and there is a serious injury or fatality on site, the HSE personnel on site may be held responsible. If you have any concerns about the equipment or materials on site raise these issues immediately to the appropriate authority in your organization.  Do this on paper and retain a copy for your personal records. It may just be your “get-out-of-jail” card should something go terribly wrong.

People/companies that are purposefully putting unsafe products in the market need to be exposed, particularly when the products are safety equipment!  If we work together to raise these issues, we can all be part of the solution to this problem.

Finally, I am very interested in hearing about your stories of such products, how to identify them and what you did to eliminate them from your workplace.  Your comments below are appreciated.

Thanks for reading.  Keep safe.  Be healthy.  Respect your environment.

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Next Week’s Blog Topic: Lead Exposure in the Workplace – Is This Really and Problem and Who is at Risk?

Photo Credits:  Fake Genuine image courtesy of and copyright StuartMiles at Free Range Stock, www.freerangestock.com

Randall D. Shaw, Ph.D.
  1. Paul N. Newton, P.N., M.D. Green,  and F.M. Fernández. 2010. Impact of poor-quality medicines in the ‘developing’ world. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2031(3-3): 99–101
  2. Feng, T., Keller, L. R., Wang, L. and Wang, Y. (2010), Product Quality Risk Perceptions and Decisions: Contaminated Pet Food and Lead-Painted Toys. Risk Analysis, 30: 1572–1589. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2010.01459.x
  3. Construction Week Online
  4. The Counterfeit Report - 3M: 8210 Particulate Respirators
  5. Minchin R.E., J. Pan, R.C. Walters, D. Fang. 20122. Counterfeit construction products from low-cost sourcing countries. Management and Innovation for a Sustainable Built Environment. 20–23 June 2011, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. ISBN: 9789052693958. 12 pp.
  6. Brookhaven National Laboratory. Welcome to Suspect/Counterfeit Items Awareness Training
  7. Brookhaven National Laboratory. Welcome to Suspect/Counterfeit Items Awareness Training
  8. Brookhaven National Laboratory. Welcome to Suspect/Counterfeit Items Awareness Training
  9. Brookhaven National Laboratory. Welcome to Suspect/Counterfeit Items Awareness Training
  10. Warning On Chinese Chains,30 Mar 2011
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