Material matters: CE the difference?

Materials World magazine
2 Apr 2014

Most of us are familiar with the CE mark, a legal requirement for many products traded within the EU to verify that the manufacturer has complied with all the EU Health, Safety and Environmental legislation applicable to the product.

Such standardisation is essential in a single market to ensure that one country cannot cut costs at the expense of safety. Few would argue against this, and I’m sure that many accidents have been prevented, and lives saved, by eliminating poorly manufactured goods from the supply chain, particularly electrical equipment, explosives and personal protective equipment – all of which have long been CE marked.

Last year, the CE scheme was extended, under the Construction Products Regulations (CPR) 2013, to include pretty much anything required in construction, including structural steel products. The main intention of the new regulations, apart from the obvious one of ensuring application of common and consistent manufacturing standards, is to prevent member countries insisting on their own national standards as a way of blocking free trade with other countries, and thereby circumventing one of the founding principles of the EU. An important point to note here is that the CE system doesn’t introduce a new standard, rather it verifies that a product conforms to an existing European Harmonised Standard, for example the BS-EN 10025-1 for steel sections and plates.

Of course, to become fully compliant with the requirements for CE marking isn’t easy and requires a mountain of paperwork, including declarations of performance and compliance, material certificates, test certificates and all the rest, together with a system of approved and competent inspectors to sign off that everything is correct. All of this adds significant cost, but if the result is a level playing field for manufacturers of construction materials and, ultimately, safer buildings and structures, then presumably it is worth it.

But, this being the EU, it doesn’t stop there. From 1 July 2014, the regulations are to be extended to cover the fabrication of steel structures – the mechanisms by which the steel components are actually welded or bolted together. Hundreds of steel fabrication and welding shops across the UK will be affected, many of which are small, family businesses and, if recent media reports are to be believed, few seem to even know about the CPR, let alone understand it. However, this is not to say that these companies do not work to recognised welding standards and qualification procedures – all the CE mark will do is verify that these things have been done. Structural failures of major buildings usually make the headlines and, more often than not, the failure is due to the structural loads exceeding those for which it was designed, be that extreme weather, impact damage or explosion. But I have never heard of a failure caused by poor fabrication, although I would be happy to be corrected on that point. In any event, what analysis has been done to show that the benefits of these new regulations in terms of lives saved, or even reduced repair bills, is proportionate to the huge cost that these companies now face? In 10 years’ time, after many of the smaller companies have been regulated out of business, will we look back to July 2014 and be able to see the difference?