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Toy testers working overtime amid recalls

With the holidays nearing, manufacturers are keeping labs busy to ensure product safety and soothe consumers.

September 25, 2007|From the Associated Press

enfield, conn. -- Gone is the 40-hour workweek at Specialized Technology Resources Inc. Boxes of toys are piling up in the middle of its testing lab, workers are coming in on weekends, and product testers who normally would check tools or candles are working on chess sets and plastic cars.

Business is bustling since the recent recalls of millions of toys. Management at the international product testing company is considering adding to its staff of 1,600.

"Right now, we're using everybody in toy land," said Linda Root, manager of the company's toy-testing lab here.

The recalls have toy companies from the largest producer Mattel Inc. to small importers clamoring to hire companies to test and retest their toys as a way to allay consumer fears ahead of the key holiday shopping season.

Several testing firms operate worldwide, including Switzerland-based SGS Group, which has 48,000 workers in 1,000 locations, Bureau Veritas Group, with 26,000 employees in 700 locations, and London-based Intertek Group, which employs 20,000 people in 100 countries.

Mattel's first recall this summer, 1.5 million toys tainted with lead paint, was a wake-up call for the industry, said Sue DeRagon, Specialized Technology Resources' associate director of toys and premiums. Since then, Mattel and others have recalled more than 20 million toys for high lead levels or for small magnets that children can swallow, prompting toy companies to do more tests.

That's kept the lab, housed in an old textile mill in this town north of Hartford, Conn., plenty busy. Toy companies are sending samples of finished toys to test, especially for lead and magnets, which can be dangerous if they are swallowed and join together in the digestive system.

Workers conduct a battery of tests on each toy, based either on U.S. toy safety standards or more stringent criteria, if that's what a company wants.

To check for lead, lab workers use a razor blade to scrape off paint from the toy's surface. They need one-tenth of a gram of paint to test, which can be a challenge when dealing with dice that have only painted dots or a chess set with lots of nooks and crannies.

"It is very tedious work. It's not easy," Root said. "You do have to pay attention so you don't lose fingers and cut yourself in any way. There is no easy way of getting it off. It can take hours."

If a piece of a toy can be grasped or bitten, such as an arm or leg on an action figure, testers put that piece in a torque gauge and twist it to see if it snaps. Then they pull the arm or leg for 10 seconds. Any piece that breaks off is measured in a small-parts cylinder. If it fits inside the shot-glass-sized cylinder, it could choke a child.

Toys are also dropped several times and placed over a candle flame for five seconds, then allowed to burn for one minute to see whether they will easily catch fire.

Testers check for sharp edges and points and look for long strings or other pieces of cloth that could strangle a child. If a loop of string can pass over a metal head probe about the size of a baby's head, it could be dangerous, Root said.

Testers also look for so-called filth in the stuffing inside plush toys.

"You find bugs. Dead bugs usually. If they sweep up the floor, there could be sawdust," Root said. "We found just recently we had one that had metal shavings in it."

Specialized Technology even sends toys out to a local day-care center and testers watch the children play.

"We'll direct them and say, 'See if you can break the head off this figure,' " DeRagon said. "It's important to get some real-life information. Let's really see how they're playing with it."

American law does not require toys to be tested before they get into children's hands, although the Toy Industry Assn. supports a federal mandatory testing requirement. For now, how thoroughly toys get tested -- if at all -- can vary widely from one company to another.

The cost of testing is often borne by the manufacturer or importer. A basic lead test could cost $35 for a toy line, DeRagon said.

Costs for more extensive tests can range from a couple hundred dollars for a line of toys that's already packaged and in a warehouse down to nearly negligible if a company has a long-term testing program in place at the assembly line, said Sean McGowan, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities.

Much of the testing that's been going on recently is retesting, so it's more expensive, McGowan said. More regular testing, which the industry is now considering making a requirement, would bring down costs, he said.

Companies are supposed to adhere to voluntary standard consumer toy safety regulations. Toy makers, testers and retailers work with the association to set the standards.

"What's scary is when you hear a toy manufacturer say, 'Huh, I've never heard of this,' " DeRagon said.

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