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Council Question: Safety of smart products
2016-12-01

Following is a question by the Hon Charles Peter Mok and a written reply by the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Gregory So, in the Legislative Council today (November 30, 2016):

 

Question:

Recently, following a spate of incidents in which smartphones of a newly launched model burst into flames or exploded allegedly caused by overheating of the lithium batteries inside, the manufacturer concerned decided to globally recall the phones of that model and stop selling them.  Given that electronic products such as notebook computers, smartphones, tablets, unmanned aircraft systems and power banks (collectively known as “smart products”) invariably use lithium batteries, the aforesaid incidents have aroused public concern about the safety of such kind of products.  While the Electrical Products (Safety) Regulation (Cap. 406 sub. leg. G) provides that electrical products for household purposes must have a certificate of safety compliance and comply with the applicable safety requirements for them to be supplied in Hong Kong, the Regulation is not applicable to smart products.  The Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance (Cap. 456) provides that the authorities may order the persons concerned to (i) publish a warning regarding the safety use of consumer goods, (ii) suspend the supply of consumer goods, and (iii) recall consumer goods with a significant risk.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the number of complaints about the safety of smart products received by the Customs and Excise Department (C&E) in each of the past three years, together with the respective numbers of cases in which C&E conducted on its own initiative sampling tests of the products or investigations in response to (i) complaints received, (ii) media reports and (iii) referrals from the Consumer Council (with a breakdown by product type);

(2) given that the Compliance Test Specification – Safety and Electrical Protection Requirements for Subscriber Telecommunications Equipment issued by the Communications Authority (CA) only stipulates the compliance specification for lithium batteries in regard to electrical protection, how CA ensures that smart products on the List of Mobile Communications Devices which Comply with the Electrical and Radiation Safety Requirements Prescribed by the Communications Authority are safe to use;

(3) whether the authorities will regularly conduct sampling tests on the safety of such kind of products pursuant to the Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(4) given that the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department has implemented a voluntary scheme for registration of certificates of safety compliance in respect of electrical products, whether the authorities will include smart products in the Electrical Products (Safety) Regulation so that such products may participate in the registration scheme; and

(5) whether it will review the existing legislation with a view to strengthening regulation of the safety of smart products, such as empowering the authorities to order the persons concerned to (i) publish a warning regarding the safety use of such kind of products and (ii) recall such kind of products; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?

Reply:

President,

There are numerous kinds of electric and electronic products for sale in the market, and some of them are referred to as smart products.  The safety of such products, depending on their nature, is regulated by different ordinances and departments.  The following is a consolidated reply to the five parts of the question in consultation with the Transport and Housing Bureau and Environment Bureau:

Regulation under the Telecommunications Ordinance

According to the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap. 106), the Communications Authority (CA) may prescribe technical standards and specifications to be met by subscriber telecommunications equipment to ensure that such equipment can be connected to the local networks and operated properly.  Take mobile phones as an example, the CA has set the following specifications:

HKCA 1033 Performance Specification of the Mobile Stations and Portable Equipment for Use in Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) in the 900 and 1 800 MHz Bands
HKCA 1048 Performance Specification for User Equipment for Use in the Third Generation (3G) Mobile Communications Services Employing CDMA Direct Spread (UTRA FDD)
HKCA 1057 Performance Specification for User Equipment for Use in Public Mobile Communications Services based on Evolved Universal Terrestrial Radio Access (E-UTRA) Frequency Division Duplex (FDD)
HKCA 1035 Performance specification for Radio Equipment Exempted from Licensing
HKCA 1039 Performance Specification for Radiocommunications Apparatus Operating in the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz Band and Employing Frequency Hopping or Digital Modulation
HKCA 2001 Compliance Test Specification – Safety And Electrical Protection Requirements For Subscriber Telecommunications Equipment

The above specifications are developed according to internationally recognised standards, covering radio performance, electrical safety requirements and radiation safety standards of mobile phones.  A mobile phone would only be incorporated into the “List of Mobile Communications Devices which Comply with the Electrical and Radiation Safety Requirements Prescribed by the Communications Authority” if it is issued with a certificate by a body recognised by the CA proving that it complies with the relevant specifications. The Telecommunications Ordinance also stipulates that the CA may by order prescribe that equipment or an installation shall not be offered for sale unless the equipment or installation complies with the prescribed specifications or bears the prescribed label.

Other than regulation of the electrical safety, other areas of safety of mobile phones, such as material safety, risk of screen breakage or glare, differences in production batches and quality control, are not covered by the Telecommunications Ordinance.

Under the Telecommunications Ordinance, the CA has no statutory power to require manufacturers to recall, replace, or require retailers to cease the sale of mobile phones which are considered to be unsafe.

In the past three years, the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) has received a total of 21 complaints in relation to the electrical safety of mobile phones (please see Annex 1 for the figures by year), including six cases referred by the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) and one case referred by the Consumer Council.  The above complaints mainly involved problems with the batteries of mobile phones, for example, batteries that were damaged, worn out, hit by external force or got wet.  All the problems were solved after the maintenance agents explained the situation to the complainants or adjusted/replaced the relevant batteries for the complainants.  The OFCA has not identified any substantiated case of mobile phone batteries not conforming with the safety requirements.

Regulation under the Electricity Ordinance

The safety of battery chargers for mobile phones are regulated by the Electrical Products (Safety) Regulation (Cap. 406G) (EPSR) under the Electricity Ordinance (Cap. 406).  The EPSR, which is enforced by the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD), stipulates that any household electrical products operating at a voltage exceeding 50 volts alternating current or 120 volts direct current must comply with the applicable safety requirements.  In the past three years, the EMSD investigated a total of four cases about battery chargers for mobile phones regulated by the EPSR (please see Annex 2 for the figures by year).  In the above cases, no unsafe situation was found.

The voluntary scheme for registration of household electrical products launched by the EMSD aims to facilitate the public to select household electrical products which have been issued with a certificate of safety compliance in accordance with the EPSR.  The EMSD also posts the information of the products under the scheme onto its website.  Since products with lithium batteries in general operate at a voltage not exceeding 50 volts alternating current or 120 volts direct current, they are not classified as the electrical products regulated by the EPSR.  Therefore, they will not be included in the registration scheme.

Regulation under the Civil Aviation Ordinance

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) are one kind of aircraft, the flight safety of which is regulated by the civil aviation legislation and is under the purview of the Civil Aviation Department.  The Civil Aviation Department has not received any complaints about the product safety of UASs.

Regulation under the Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance

The safety of consumer goods which are ordinarily supplied for local consumption and not covered by specific legislation in Hong Kong, is subject to the regulation of the Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance (CGSO) and its subsidiary legislation, Consumer Goods Safety Regulation, which is enforced by the C&ED.  Under the CGSO, consumer goods must meet the “general safety requirements”.  The requirement imposes a duty on manufacturers, importers and suppliers of consumer goods to ensure that the consumer goods are reasonably safe, having regard to all the circumstances.

The legislative intent of the CGSO was to provide safety protection for goods which are not covered by specific legislation.  As such, the scope of the CGSO is not applicable to any other goods the safety of which is controlled by specific legislation, such as food, aircraft, motor vehicle, electrical products, mobile phones with original batteries as parts integral to the mobile phones, etc.  The C&ED has no power to take enforcement action against goods not covered by the CGSO.

In the past three years, the C&ED investigated a total of 33 cases on the safety of electronic products covered by the CGSO, including 21 cases that originated from complaints, four cases referred by the Consumer Council and eight cases proactively developed by the C&ED.  The products involved include tablet computers and external chargers, etc.  In the above cases, the C&ED successfully purchased eight of the above products as samples for conducting safety tests.  The number of the investigation cases on the safety of electronic products covered by the CGSO in the past three years is at Annex 3.

The relevant Bureaux and Departments responsible for enforcing the law will continue to keep a close watch on the latest development of the relevant goods and review the relevant laws when necessary to ensure the safety of consumers and the public.

Office Of Hon. Charles Mok, Legislative Councillor (IT)