What Does That UL Mark on My Device Mean?

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Quick, grab your closest battery pack and/or charger and turn it over to see what it says. Ditto for your closest smoke alarm. You know what, make that any electronic device nearby. Does it have the letters UL printed on it? Chances are very good that it does. But why?

An Invisible Safety Net

UL stands for Underwriters Laboratories, a global company with one big job: to help ensure the products you buy are safe to use. The safety science organization estimated that there were 22 billion UL Marks on products in 2016 — that's equivalent to three products for every man, woman, and child on the planet. But you might have never known UL even existed. You just trust that your electrical plugs won't start smoking and your smoke alarm will alert you in an emergency, thanks to some invisible tech-savvy guardian angel.

That guardian angel constantly facilitates safety standards for all sorts of things: plugs, fire doors, solar panels, and holiday lights, just to name a few. UL's not-for-profit business organizes Standards Technical Panels (STP) where technical experts from manufacturers, industry trade groups, other testing laboratories, consumer groups, and government organizations like the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), along with UL itself, come together to develop safety standards for a given device. That not-for-profit business is the parent of UL's for-profit portion, which performs the product safety testing for manufacturers.

You might remember one example of UL stepping in back in 2016, when the CPSC announced that hoverboards — those two-wheeled, self-balancing scooters that were all the rage during Christmas 2015 — should be recalled until they could be properly certified as safe from fire, shock, and hazard risks. Generic versions of the scooters were flying out of factories with minimal safety inspections, if any, and some were bursting into flames.

UL worked within the industry and with organizations such as the CPSC to develop UL 2272, a voluntary Standard consisting of a construction evaluation, safety testing, and ensuring marketing and labeling compliance. CPSC Chairman Elliot F. Kaye told Mashable in 2016: "This is us drawing a line in the sand and a notice for the entire hoverboard community. From our perspective, a smart retailer will put in place a stop sale to find out if their inventory complies with the UL Standard. If they are certain that it doesn't, they should then issue a recall proposal."

The Mark You Never See

But those 22 billion UL Marks are just the tip of the iceberg — there are plenty of places UL's safety certification never leaves a mark. The company helps facilitate indoor air-quality standards and performs factory inspections to help ensure that products and packaging meets the customers' quality specifications. UL tests makeup, lotion, and other products you put on your skin. It even has a transaction security division to help keep digital transactions and personal information safe.

Of course, when your name is synonymous with safety certification, you have to safeguard the integrity of your brand. An entire department is devoted to making sure products purported to be UL certified really are certified, and aren't just using a counterfeit UL Mark.

Even though UL Certification isn't always required, it's a great product differentiator for a manufacturer. Consumers might be more likely to trust a product that says it is safety certified. That makes it tempting for unscrupulous companies to use the UL Mark illegally, which is why UL has developed public-private partnerships to help remove products with counterfeit UL Marks from the marketplace.

With all the things UL does, you might be surprised about how little you knew about it. But that's exactly what good safety certification should be. You never have to think about whether your light bulbs will catch fire or if the finish on your hardwood floor is making you sick. Safety is virtually invisible — aside from that little UL Mark, of course.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 11, 2018
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