Detonating Devices: When Consumer Demands Undermine Safety

A phone on fire while charging in a car A certain electronic device (a phone, to be exact) caused no small amount of uproar amongst the tech community when multiple cases of it bursting into flames dominated headlines. The manufacturer has since recalled all of these devices and deactivated the accounts of those who did not return theirs to retailers.

The culprit was the exploding phone’s lithium-ion battery, along with the manufacturer’s QA oversight, which caused concern for the safety of devices with similar power sources. Then again, that particular phone’s slim profile was partly to blame for the chaos that ensued. Why would anybody build such a volatile gadget intended for consumers’ hands?

Consumer demand and manufacturers riding the wave of trends might also be culpable.

Beauty for the sake of functionality (and safety)

One of the most advertised features of any modern premium smartphone is thinness. Manufacturers build the skinniest dimensions possible for an electronic gadget, even at the expense of ergonomics and yes, safety.

Apparently, worst-case scenarios resulted in the controversial exploding phone. Investigations found that lithium-ion batteries stuffed in a compact frame made them a safety hazard when subjected to the kind of stress other devices could withstand.

Regulators recognize these risks, which is why the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission imposed strict safety standards for device manufacturers. The mid-2000s saw quite a few battery scares and recalls, which resulted in industry-wide overhauls in safety measure implementations. Most modern consumer electronics undergo rigorous, highly accelerated stress tests in various production stages before their release to the market.

Preventing fiery fiascos

All lithium-ion-powered devices carry a subtle risk of catching fire or exploding, and only if the user is particularly careless or tinkers with it without professional experience. If you own such gadgets, it pays to observe the following precautions:

  • Avoid placing phones, tablets or laptops on soft surfaces like pillows, sofas or beds. Contact with the fabric traps heat in the device, increasing the chance of a fire hazard.
  • Check your device’s battery for any signs of damage, especially if you dropped it or was subject to physical abuse in any other way. Any breach in the lithium ion cell can potentially make it unstable.
  • Beware of unknown brands for replacement batteries. Other than authorized third-party manufacturers, it’s highly likely these products do not meet safety regulations.

It may take a while before device manufacturers abandon the ‘thinner is better’ philosophy for their gadgets. Questionable business tactics aside, consumers also have a duty to demand the highest standards of safety from these companies, since only then would they innovate harder to build better, safer products.