How Important Is UL Certification for a Standing Desk or Treadmill Desk?
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This is a broad subject involving more than 125 years of history of the Underwriters Laboratories (UL), product manufacturers, consumers around the globe and across industries, and countless liability lawsuits adding to legal precedent. In this primer, we’re going to convey in layman’s terms the most important things you should consider when shopping online for office fitness gear.
Why should I care if something is UL Certified?
Having your home or business burn to the ground due to an electrical fire, or getting mortally injured on a piece of fitness equipment would be tragic! But it’s pretty easy to reduce the odds of tragedy with one simple measure: purchase and install only UL-certified equipment.
UL certification is category-specific. That is, washing machines have a different standard than treadmills. While seeing the UL seal of approval on a product doesn’t guarantee your safety, it does guarantee that the manufacturer met the latest safety standards in their design and production of the product, at the time of the product’s introduction. (At least when the UL certification hasn’t itself been faked, as we were the first to discover and report about the now-defunct maker of the TreadDesk office treadmill. We learned a lot in that investigation that led us to writing this article.)
People used to think of UL as something that was only necessary for products that plug into an AC outlet (toasters, Christmas lights, etc.). Nowadays, the UL certification process also includes other relevant safety standards such as testing for the existence of any hazardous chemicals and any excessive electronic emissions that might mess with other nearby electronic equipment. In some jurisdictions and product categories, UL approval may be required by law, but generally speaking it is voluntary for the manufacturer to spend the time, money, and effort to submit their products for testing.
Is UL a government agency?
There are very few legal, state-sanctioned monopolies in the USA. Underwriters Laboratories, founded in 1894 by William Henry Merrill, is one of them, Many people believe that UL is some sort of governmental entity, but, in fact, it is a private, profit-making company (it was a non-profit prior to 2012). UL receives millions of dollars in fees and employs, directly or indirectly, hundreds, if not thousands, of people all over the world. In some states and local jurisdictions, it is illegal to sell electrical items without a UL inspection and seal of approval. The Northbrook, Illinois-based company participates in the safety analysis of tens of thousands of products a year.
UL is one of several companies approved to perform safety testing by the U.S. federal agency Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA maintains a list of approved testing laboratories, which are known as Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories. Early in his career as an electrical engineer in Boston, a 25-year-old Merrill was sent by underwriters issuing fire insurance to assess risk, and investigate the World Fair’s Palace of Electricity. In order to determine and mitigate risk, Merrill found it necessary to conduct tests on building materials. Upon seeing a growing potential in his field, Merrill stayed in Chicago to found Underwriters Laboratories.
Since then, UL has expanded into an organization with 64 laboratories, testing and certification facilities serving customers in 104 countries. It has evolved from its roots in electrical and fire safety to address broader safety issues, such as hazardous substances, water quality, food safety, performance testing, safety and compliance education and environmental sustainability.
Is UL approval legally required?
Even where it is not illegal by statute, as a practical matter, no US distributor or retailer will sell an electrical item without a UL logo, and many corporations, government agencies and educational campuses won’t buy products that aren’t UL-approved. For high-integrity manufacturers who purchase product liability insurance, UL approval is often a requirement to get a decent insurance premium, or in some cases even to be able to acquire coverage at all.
In this age of globalization, it is increasingly rare to find an electrical product, including items as simple as light bulbs, that are actually manufactured in the USA. The companies that manufacture these items are often immune from any financial responsibility for injuries caused by their products in the US. A lawsuit filed in the US and served under international treaties is often ignored by these companies. Even if one were to obtain a judgment against a foreign manufacturer and try to enforce it, the manufacturer might simply change its name and reopen the next day.
Fortunately, some of this shoddy merchandise is imported by domestic distributors and sold by reputable retailers who, under well-settled products liability law, are liable even though they had nothing to do with manufacturing the product. Often however, the retail seller is unknown because the product was purchased too long ago for anyone to remember where it was purchased. In some cases, it is possible to identify the importer, but these importers are often as sleazy as the foreign manufacturers and either have little or no coverage, or will go in and out of business and change names at the drop of a hat. There are no import laws in the US requiring insurance coverage or in any way protecting the consumer in terms of bringing the foreign manufacturers to justice.
How do I know if a UL Approval is real of faked?
Of course there will be unsavory operators out there who will fake a UL label, especially if they’re beyond the easy reach of our legal system. These days many products in the office fitness category are sold by less-than-savory Asian exporters, sometimes directly to US consumers and businesses through eBay, Amazon or their own website. No one is checking on their UL compliance. Some sellers fraudulently claim certification when they have none, and some will point to a UL certified power cord or power supply and fraudulently claim that the entire desk or treadmill is UL certified, when in fact it would not meet the full safety standard for that category of product.
What does UL specifically require for office fitness products?
When you’re buying a standing desk, standing desk converter, treadmill desk or any other office fitness product online it’s crucial to know whether it meets the entire safety standard for its category.
As a very clear example of how UL certification relates to office fitness gear, standing desks cannot have “fire and forget” height preset buttons. If you watch a video demonstration of the product online and the user hits a button, then lifts her finger off while the desk continues to move on its own, that’s a desk that does not meet the UL safety standard in the USA (which is different than the standards in Asia and Europe). The exception is any desk, like the iMovR Lander, that has a smartphone app and Bluetooth sync to the desk’s controller that allow the user to click off on a “click wrap liability waiver.” UL only allows this because of the tested anti-collision detection feature of the desk and the ability to present the full text of the liability waiver to the user for an explicit waiver. See our primer on Differences Between American-Made and Asian-Made Standing Desks for more info.
Treadmill desk certification is far more involved, including very specific standards for RFI emissions, testing with extremely high voltage shocks (to ensure that the treadmill can still be brought to a safe stop, etc.) and even the design of the red emergency cut-off button that’s attached to that lanyard you’re supposed to clip to your clothing. Even though there is absolutely no need for an emergency pull cord when you’re walking at such slow walking speeds, you don’t ever want to be hit with a personal injury lawsuit over bringing a non-compliant treadmill base into your office space.
For legitimate American manufacturers, there is really no alternative to spending the upwards of $8,000 for a full UL safety test on a new product. While UL tests have become increasingly involved, time consuming and expensive, the cost of a product liability lawsuit settlement when the product in question has not been UL-approved can be astronomical, and in some cases cause the company to go under. Even if they have product liability coverage, they may never be able to renew their policy.
That said, some of the biggest online marketers in our industry sell many thousands of standing desks a year using Asian-sourced bases that would not pass the full safety standard in the USA. This is risky, but in a very economically sensitive and competitive landscape, they elect to use cheaper bases from overseas to keep their prices low and win a higher volume of business.
For business, government and education buyers, there is generally no wiggle room. Buying non-UL approved products could land you in hot water with your legal or personnel department. It’s simply not worth the risk. As a consumer buying a desk for the home office, it’s a personal choice.
If you’re considering a standing desk or treadmill desk and aren’t sure whether it is UL-approved, then by all means ask the manufacturer. Ideally have them send you a link to an online listing verifying their standing with UL, or a photo of the UL approval sticker that has the number you’ll need to look up online yourself. If you come across any office fitness product (particularly electric) that is being sold without valid UL certification, please leave us a comment here so we can investigate and either warn or assure other readers of the product’s status.