Major fears about construction product safety have been raised following the European Commission’s decision to water down regulations covering the CE marking system.
Concern follows the replacement of the Construction Products Directive with the Construction Products Framework on 1 July. The new framework makes it easier for manufacturers of non-standard products to obtain a CE mark indicating compliance with its requirements.
Manufacturers are also no longer required to provide as much guidance about how to use their products correctly as they were under the Construction Products Directive.
The significance of the shift emerged at a conference for stakeholders in Brussels late last month.
Contractors fear the move will trigger an increase in structural failures, for which they will be held accountable.
“Construction products are not commodity products,” said European contractors federation Fiec’s technical commission chairman Jan Coumans.
“They are safety critical. The future of the European construction industry depends on innovation. But if the system does not give us confidence, then it will reduce our willingness to use innovative products, because in most cases, when something goes wrong, the contractor is reliant on the goodwill of manufacturer to come forward, as you can always find some fault in the contractor’s installation.”
The legislative change is driven by the European Commission’s desire to make it easier to get new products to market.
Instead of having to demonstrate a products’ fitness for purpose in use in order to obtain a “European Technical Approval”, manufacturers now must simply demonstrate that the product meets certain performance criteria in order to receive a “European Technical Assessment”.
These criteria will be set out in new European Approval Documents (EADs) but these have yet to be drafted.
Once a product is assessed, and awarded a CE mark, the rules then limit the degree to which manufacturers cab offer detailed guidance on how the product should be installed. This is in stark contrast to the old regime, whereby products receiving an ETA and CE mark had to provide a “library” of documentation including detailed instructions on how they should be used.
The significance of the shift in legislation emerged at a conference for stakeholders in Brussels late last month.
“It is essential that CE marking and ETAs provide users with all the necessary information to install or execute correctly,” said Coumans, adding that it was a real concern that legislation around safety critical products was being relaxed, and that information on how best to use them was being deliberately cut back.
“Given that CE marking and ETA documents will have an inherent credibility among users, FIEC fears that CE marking and ETA documents may be mis-used by the not-too-serious manufacturers,” he said.
“One expectation of CE marking and [the acronym] ETAs is that they confirm that the product meets a given specification,” agreed Rainer Mikulits, managing director of the Austrian Institute of Construction Engineering and president of the European Organisation for Technical Assessment (EOTA), the European Commission-backed body responsible for running the assessments programme.
“That is no longer the case. It just confirms that a product conforms with a declared performance criteria.”
“It is a change in philosophy and it is a concern,” he said.
Mikultis questioned the decision to give the manufacturer the power to decide which specific properties of his product would be tested.
“It is a little bit like Christmas. The CPF states that “the performance of these essential characteristics is to be agreed by the manufacturer and the assessment body.
“The ETA is no longer an assessment of the fitness for use.”
Progress on defining the EADs which will be used to carry out ETAs is slow and the industry remains in limbo. Products awarded a CE mark through the old ETA process and put on the market before 1 July remain valid. But products launched since remain without access to CE marking or any third party accreditation process.