Fighting rogue suppliers08 January 2024

VLS rougue suppliers lubricants

As non-compliant and dangerous products flood into the UK, when the government doesn’t act, industry can, reports Brian Wall

Where ‘bad actors’ operate within any industry – such as a forklift truck or telescopic ladder being supplied in a poor or dangerous condition – can cause fundamental safety issues for an organisation and its employees, with serious injury or worse the outcome. Moreover, when that faulty equipment is being operated on behalf of a third party, a hard-won reputation and trustworthiness can be damaged.

This is, of course, where government regulatory agencies have an important role to play by addressing such abuses. However, they are not the only forces for good. Indeed, there are many organisations ‘out there’ that can act on behalf of someone who feels they may have a legitimate complaint – against a supplier, for example – and are seeking redress.

For example, the Verification of Lubricant Specifications (VLS) – a subsidiary of the United Kingdom Lubricants Association – investigates products on sale in the UK for compliance, whether imported or domestically produced. While the vast majority of complaints received relate to passenger vehicle engine oils, VLS looks at cases concerning heavy-duty, industrial and marine products as well.

The organisation celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. Reviewing its history, VLS chair Jacquie Berryman, says: “The launch of VLS in 2013 was met with an expected influx of cases, due to pent-up demand. Case numbers reduced during Covid, as the industry dealt with shutdowns and closures. In 2022, VLS proactively purchased independent product reports and investigated products that had been found to be non-compliant, leading to a rise in cases that year. Cases received in 2023 are the highest since 2016.

“This demonstrates the need for an independent trade body that can cover all aspects of the lubricants industry,” she points out.

Investigating cases is the core of VLS’s work. “If a product is found to be non-compliant, VLS enters into a period of dialogue with the named party, with the aim of bringing the product into compliance,” adds Berryman. “This can include changes to packaging, technical data sheets or product formulations. In some cases, stock has been quarantined and uplifted to remove non-compliant products from the marketplace.” VLS has also established a primary authority relationship with Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards to which cases can be escalated, if not resolved in a satisfactory way.

In nearby Berkshire, a similar relationship has been established by another trade association, the UK Material Handling Association (UKMHA), which is based in Newbury. “Cowboys and rogue traders have long been considered part-and-parcel hazards of purchasing materials handling equipment,” it points out. “However, the Fork Lift Truck Association, along with West Berkshire District Council and Trading Standards is determined to change this through the Fork Truck Watchdog – a system for reporting dishonest traders.” Any aggrieved party can start the process by filing a report via


Meanwhile, a spate of reports about imported unsafe telescopic ladders, increasingly popular equipment for working at heights, has prompted action by the Ladder Association.

The alert stemmed from enquiries led by Derbyshire County Council’s trading standards team, who discovered a total of 13 telescopic ladder types all failed to meet EN 131 (the standard for portable steps and ladders). The Ladder Association worked with the council’s trading standards team and the HSE on this issue and part-funded product testing to establish which telescopic ladders were faulty and from where they originated.

Its findings reveal that over 80% of commercially available telescopic ladders tested failed to meet the minimum safety requirements designed to keep users safe. Worse still, this research showed that more than half of the failed ladders were marked and sold as ‘compliant’.

“In our latest multipurpose ladder study, our research found that all of the failed ladders were advertised as compliant with the product standard (EN 131-4), either on the product listing, product packaging or product labelling, in a deliberate attempt to mislead consumers,” says Peter Bennett, executive director of the Ladder Association.

“Our previous two telescopic studies found similar evidence. It is clear from our latest report that the issue of unsafe telescopic ladders available for sale on the UK market is neither new, nor improving. We also know the issue is not constrained to our sector. We were joint signatories, alongside the British Toy and Hobby Association and Electrical Safety First, in an open letter to government, urging [it] to immediately release the long-awaited product safety review.”

The association is consistently seeing evidence of below-standard imported ladders that have never been designed to meet the requirements of the product standard, and are falsifying compliance. “The main route to market that concerns us is via online platforms,” says Bennett. “As it stands, online marketplaces selling products supplied by third-party sellers have no responsibility for preventing unsafe goods being sold on their platforms, and no legal obligation to inform consumers if they have purchased unsafe goods.”

While Trading Standards can investigate and take appropriate enforcement action against UK-based businesses, those operating outside the UK are not exposed to current product safety law. “The sellers are virtually anonymous, making it almost impossible to hold them to account.”

The Ladder Association says it has been campaigning for years to raise awareness of unsafe ladders. “Back in March 2021, the Office for Product Safety & Standards (OPSS) opened a review into the UK’s product safety regulatory framework and whether it was fit for the 21st century,” adds Bennett.

“The public call for evidence closed in June 2021; the government’s response was published November 2021. Since then, we have waited for the proposal, which was only just published on 2 August 2023. At that point, the OPSS opened consultation for stakeholders to give their views on the proposals. [The consultation closed on 24 Oct 2023]. No further dates/timeline for implementation have been released. Until then, users are being put at risk daily.”

The association’s technical manager and chair of its technical committee, Don Aers, advises telescopic ladder users and owners to download its safety guide (see and inspect the ladder thoroughly for any signs of damage or component failure. “If you have any doubts at all about its condition, then don’t use it and contact the supplier for advice.”

Brian Wall

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Derbyshire County Council

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