Business

Whirlpool 'silenced customers' amid tumble dryer fire scare

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Media captionWhy do some tumble dryers catch fire?

Whirlpool used "chilling" non-disclosure agreements "to silence customers" while fire-prone tumble dryers remained in UK homes, MPs say.

The manufacturer deflected concerns and was too slow to fix the fire danger, which first emerged four years ago, the Commons business committee said.

A truly independent product safety agency needed to be created, it added.

Whirlpool said its campaign to fix or replace machines was five times more successful than usual product recalls.

The fire risk

Dangerous dryers under the Hotpoint, Indesit, Creda, Swan and Proline brands were sold in the UK for 11 years from 2004. They were blamed for a spate of fires after a build up of fluff fell onto the machine's heating element.

Whirlpool initially offered to modify affected dryers - a decision widely criticised by consumer and safety groups, and which itself has led to concern over the safety of supposedly fixed machines.

It started a full recall, which includes offering a free replacement dryer, in July after the regulator stepped in.

Up to 800,000 machines were estimated to still be in use when the full recall began - a figure which the committee described as "astonishing".

Rachel Reeves, who chairs the committee, said: "Whirlpool's response to fixing safety flaws in its tumble dryers has too often owed more to PR management than to taking the practical steps to make its machines safe for customers.

"The Whirlpool tumble dryer saga has dragged on for far too long, leaving customers, now four years on, still fearing they may have potentially unsafe tumble dryers in their homes. Whirlpool has failed to live up to the duties it owes to its customers."

Whirlpool said 102,600 consumers had registered their affected machine since the recall launched in July. The company said these machines had been fixed or replaced within an average of 10 days.

Jeff Noel, vice-president of Whirlpool, said: "Through our ongoing campaign, we have resolved this potential safety issue - which concerns tumble dryers produced by the previous owner of the company - for more than 1.75 million people. This is up to five times the average success rate for a product recall in the UK."

'It is an absolute sham'

Andy Gibb used to swear by the Hotpoint brand, which had made all the white goods in his home when he was growing up.

As a result, when he bought a tumble dryer in 2005, it was a Hotpoint. He looked after it, regularly cleaning the filter, and it is still in his home. The trouble is, it is on the list as a potential fire hazard.

The 47-year-old from Liverpool contacted Whirlpool four years ago after it came up on the list of affected models. When he chased them up, the company said their records showed it had replaced the machine in 2016, but he says they have never been to his home.

"It is an absolute sham. At no time has it been replaced or repaired under the safety recall," he said.

He told Whirlpool: "Your records are inaccurate, and I would dread to see how many other customers have been treated exactly the same."

After being questioned about the case by the BBC, a Whirlpool spokesman said: "We sincerely apologise to Mr Gibb for any inconvenience caused and we will resolve the situation for him immediately.

"It appears that due to a data entry error, our records incorrectly showed that his affected dryer had previously been replaced. We have put steps in place to prevent a situation like this happening again."

The committee said that Whirlpool had used non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) on 24 occasions, asking those affected to sign them.

They included Jemma Spurr who told the committee in July that she had never received the report on the cause of her fire, or an apology from the company.

The committee said: "It is disgraceful that Whirlpool made customers who had been victims of fires involving its products sign NDAs in order to receive compensation to which they were entitled. Its treatment of Jemma Spurr was lamentable, though we welcome their subsequent apology."

Its report also calls for the establishment of an independent arms-length body, like the Food Standards Agency, equipped with a wide range of civil and criminal sanctions to oversee product safety.

The current, relatively new, Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) was in danger of being a toothless regulator, it said.

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Image caption The damage caused by a dryer to a flat in Shepherd's Bush, London

Caroline Normand, from consumer group Which?, welcomed the call, saying: "We need to see swift changes to stop corporations getting away with putting their reputations ahead of public safety."

Other recommendations from the committee included:

  • A regulator to tackle dangerous second-hand and illegal electrical goods being sold online
  • A national injury database and a comprehensive registration and recall hub
  • Indelible marking for electrical goods, to identify them after a fire, in a similar system to cars

"A centralised recall database would form part of the solution in ensuring people are not left in the dark as to whether a dangerous product is in their home," said Martyn Allen, technical director of charity Electrical Safety First.

"Our own research has found that consumers believe registering appliances is an inconvenient process, and the recommendation of registering at the point of purchase could help tackle the relatively low number of registered electrical items in the UK."

A spokesman for the Department for Business, which oversees the OPSS, said: "Without the intervention by the government's OPSS, the recall of Whirlpool tumble dryers simply would not have happened."

He added that Whirlpool's response to the situation would be kept under review.

What the full recall means for consumers

Anyone who thinks they bought a potentially dangerous dryer should call 0800 151 0905 or visit a dedicated website to check if their dryer is affected. If it is on the recall list, they should stop using it and unplug it immediately.

They can then choose:

  • A free replacement dryer with no extra charges for collection or disposal of the old machine
  • A free, one-hour modification of the old machine
  • A discounted upgrade to a higher specification model than the free replacement
  • A partial refund of up to £150, with owners of older machines getting less than those with newer ones

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