The incident is the third major publicised failure of South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) marks processes and SABS laboratory testing of condoms supplied to state contracts in the last four years, adding to health and safety standards and testing failures on some electrical lights, cables and multiplugs.
SA Free State health department official Jabu Mbalula recalled a Health Department commissioned batch of condoms earmarked for the ANC centenary, on January 18, 2012, after the South African AIDS Treatment Action Campaign complained of condoms bursting, leaking, and apparently not protecting users or their partners against HIV infection or pregnancy.
In 2007, recall of 20-million defective SA made and SABS marked condoms was said to be due to a bribed SABS testing manager. In 2008, 5-million tested but defective condoms were recalled. Suppliers were blamed for bypassing some product quality assurance steps.
At least one police investigation followed the 2007 condom recall, and adoption of new condom testing standards followed in 2011, but the 2012 condom recall indicates that some core problems in quality assurance by the semi state SABS remain unsolved.
SA Health Department spokesman Mbalula confirmed that condoms handed out by his department were from shipments that had been quality tested by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).
SA has the highest number of HIV infections and AIDS cases in the world, around 6-million. AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) are the leading causes of death in the country. Either disease raise the risk of contracting the other. Condoms were found to be effective against HIV and VD spread by prostitutes, but not effective in poor rural populations with high infection levels.
SABS approved unsafe cable
Clipsal copper coated aluminium cable had obtained a SABS permit to sell a non compliant product some years ago, and stopped only after EE Publishers convinced Clipsal’s holding company, Schneider Electric, to destroy the product.
The National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) relies on test reports from SABS test laboratories, like the Lighting Technology laboratory. SABS Commercial seems to be in conflict of interest due to dependence on its mark scheme permit holders.
SABS CEO Dr Bonakele Mehlomakulu said at the opening of new laboratories late last year that “SABS competes with other laboratories on the open market.” The new labs feature glass fronts, symbolic of “bringing transparency in the organisation”, she said.
SABS test and Mark are separate processes
SABS may not recommend any product over another, but recommends that buyers ask suppliers for SABS test reports.
SABS testing may pass a product, but allows the SABS mark only after auditing the manufacturing process. SABS audit and use of the mark could cost around R60 000. Testing could be even more expensive, due to use of sophisticated laboratory equipment.
However, some laboratory equipment have yet to be installed in the new buildings on the SABS campus. A staff member explained that some equipment awaited completion of the new buildings, or calibration by suppliers, while other designated equipment would only be ordered if industry demand could ensure profitable testing.
SABS approved unsafe fluorescent lights
An SABS Lighting Technology laboratory temperature test of linear fluorescent light fittings had failed a product that was bought and submitted by EE Publishers, but when sent to SABS mark scheme and the Regulator, the same product was retested by the same SABS laboratory, and passed.
“Queries and complaints [about the apparent irregularity] were ignored and stonewalled, while the test fee was never refunded”, said the trade and technical publisher.
Three years ago, electronics wholesaler Voltex found safety hazards on certain SABS safety mark bearing open channel fluorescent light fittings from Rabro & Sturdy, with Chinese made coils, bearing SABS safety marks.
Former variant SABS marks were being replaced by the new ‘SABS Approved’ mark since two years ago. Before that, the SABS used to insist that it tested and certified products, but did not ‘approve’ products.
The ‘SABS Approved’ mark is now widely advertised as a guarantee of safe products, but some users of condoms, lights, cables and plugs are not impressed.
Some Rabro & Sturdy fluorescent lights ballast overheated in 2005, and were again not compliant with relevant SABS mark scheme specifications and compulsory safety specifications.
Wholesaler Voltex had these lights tested at SABS Lighting Technology laboratory, which reported that magnetic ballast winding temperature overheated significantly beyond the 120°C operating limit, reported EE Publishers.
Voltex planned to return the unsafe fittings to the supplier, and informed SABS Commercial, operators of the SABS Mark Scheme, as well as SABS Lighting Technology laboratory, and National Regulator of Compulsory Specifications (NRCS), of the SABS type test report that seemed to contradict the SABS mark.
Rabro & Sturdy asked the SABS for a retest of the sample submitted by Voltex, and SABS passed the sample as “meeting all requirements of the relevant Standard… the fittings in question is [are] safe and compliant”. One SABS official had refused to sign the retest, but was either disciplined or sidelined.
The first type test report was signed by someone other than the tester. The revised lab test signature is illegible, reported the trade magazine Energize.
The two lab test reports had the same report reference number, but different results. Test dates were noted as the same, raising the prospect that no second test was done, and that results may have been altered to suit a SABS client.
Further tests by Rabro & Sturdy and the SABS established that, at a reduced voltage of 220V AC, instead of 230V AC nominal system voltage, standard SA voltage defined in the Electricity Act and Electricity Regulation Act, these lights would barely meet prescribed temperature limits.
SABS Mark Scheme officials allowed Rabro & Sturdy to apply a small sticker inside the lights housing, reading; “This fitting for use in 220 V supply area only”, but installers would assume that the lights, bearing an SABS mark, were suitable for installation in South Africa.
The two test reports bear different versions of the logo of the laboratories accreditation body, South African National Accreditation Service (SANAS). Neither logo complied with SANAS requirements, raising the possibility that some SABS laboratories were not accredited for certain tests.
No efforts were made by the SABS Mark Scheme or SABS Regulatory Division to inform the public or to recall thousands of non-compliant fluorescent light fittings.
SABS said ‘no comment’
SHEQafrica.com posed several questions to SABS officers in January, including; “What is SABS strategy and definition of the mark ‘SABS Approved’, formerly not used, misunderstood by the public, recently introduced, and now advertised on television?” The SABS media office responded; “No comment.”
Several appliances feature in a television advertisement, showing the potential misfortunes of a householder waking up and at multiple risk of injury from using non SABS Approved taps, toasters, cables, curtains, carpets, tiles and other products.
To prospective clients, SABS cites a motto of ‘Uncompromised professional services’, while some staff acknowledge that the outcomes of some standardisation and consumer protection processes are “not pleasing to everyone”.
New SABS laboratories opened in 2012
SA Pres Jacob Zuma opened nine large, new custom built SABS laboratories last year at SABS headquarters in Groenkloof. SABS CEO, Dr Bonakele Mehlomakulu and her directors hosted Pres Zuma, minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies, DTI director general Lionel October, ISO president Dr Boris Aleshin, Botswana Bureau of Standards MD Masego Marobela and others.
Dr Mehlomakulu said any South African and Africans could have products tested in 90 testing areas, unique in Africa. SABS is a member of ISO and its technical committee, and would “work more with various industries.”
SABS testing complaints sources
Recall of fluorescent luminaires, by Chris Yelland, CEng, EE Publishers, in Energize, May 2005
Overheating luminaires and all that, by Richard Frantz, PrEng CEng, Merz & McLellan SA, in Energize, May 2005; www.eepublishers.co.za/article/overheating-luminaires-and-all-that.html
SABS allows manufacturer to dump unsafe products on unsuspecting public, by Chris Yelland CEng, EE Publishers, in Energize, March 2007
Cable industry chaos, cauterisation and new cohesion, by Chris Yelland CEng, EE Publishers, in Energize, August 2007
Conditions for use of accreditation symbols or reference to accreditation systems by SANAS accredited organisations; SANAS document R 04-06, 27 February 2009.
PHOTO; SABS mark and SA Department of Health logo on one of the millions of condoms delivered for distribution at ANC centenary celebrations in 2012, and recalled in January 2012.