Combatting the threat of sub-standard building materials

With so many product options available, and a broad range of standards and codes to be adhered to, it’s easy to see how time consuming and difficult a task it can be to ensure that products meet legislative compliance. Emma Dixon-Child, compliance industry detective at SIG, explains what steps contractors can take to protect themselves and their customers when planning their next residential development

For any project, no matter how big or small, selecting products that are not only suitable for the task at hand but that will meet regulatory standards is vital.

In an effort to provide contractors with as much information as possible on the quality of a product or material, a number of compliance documents, standards and marks are often supplied, including international standards such as CE marking, national standards like BS EN and Approved Documents, and other sector- specific standards.

Although the use of these marks and certifications is generally well intended, this can lead to confusion among those who are working with the products on a day-to-day basis, with the sea of legislation making it difficult to understand which standards apply to which product applications.

In addition, the constantly evolving nature of CE marking can cause further confusion. For instance, as of July 2014 it became mandatory in the EU and UK for structural steelwork and aluminium to be affixed with CE marking to show compliance with EN 1090-1 standards. While some contractors may keep their fingers on the pulse of changing regulations, those who simply don’t have the time to do so may find themselves unwittingly using non-compliant materials.

This issue of not being able to take a step back and check product provenance is an increasing one, with 2014 being recorded as the best year for British builders in the last seven years, while Construction Products Association (CPA) forecasts show that construction output will continue to grow this year, particularly in the private housing sector.

Even in cases where a team-member is on hand to check each and every batch of building material that’s delivered, there are still a number of pitfalls to look out for.

For instance, some unscrupulous manufacturers have been known to submit products for testing in order for them to acquire a particular certification before making alterations to the design in order to save costs, rendering the marks placed upon them void, but nonetheless continuing to include them.

Another interesting method of deceiving merchants and contractors is to mark a product with what looks like an authentic standard mark, but with subtle alterations to change its meaning.

The most widely reported of these misleading marks is the ‘China Export’ logo. Applied to a number of products by Chinese manufacturers, the mark is incredibly similar to the symbol which indicates compliance with EU legislation, with the only difference being the distance between the ‘C’ and ‘E’ symbols, however ‘China Export’ marked products may not conform to any of the required standards.

The implications of using products that do not legally conform to standards are great, with inferior materials having the potential to compromise the safety of contractors and building occupants alike, while failure to comply with legislative requirements can also reduce in large fines, enforced trading restrictions or even imprisonment.

In order to ensure that all standards are met, there are essentially two routes that can be taken.

The first is for merchants and tradespeople to inspect every product delivery for the correct marks and certification, however this is time consuming and still requires the individual responsible to have a good knowledge of the legislation and any changes to requirements. In the case of larger organisations a specific post may be created with the employee’s sole responsibility being to ensure that all materials are up to standard, though this would require significant expenditure and the use of resources in an industry where skills shortages are a continuing issue.

The alternative, which offers increased peace-of-mind for tradespeople while also removing the need to spend vital time checking products, is to work with a respected distributor.

In recognition of the issue of substandard products finding their way onto site, reputable distributors will now operate assurance schemes designed to protect customers. By involving the services of experts in the required standards for each product and application, distributors can ensure that all of the products they stock meet with essential regulatory compliance.

Reputable distributors can also offer an additional layer of reassurance by providing compliance documents for standards such as CE Marking, EUTR and REACH on demand, complete with independent verification to ensure their validity. As referenced earlier, the costs of fines for non-compliance or hiring a member of staff to undertake compliance checks are such that its likely to be more cost effective to work with a distributor that can take on the burden of this testing.

For contractors and merchants at every level, the risk of being confronted by sub-standard materials is a very real one, and as the construction industry continues to grow and resources remain limited there’s no better time to call on the services of experienced distributors.