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Swimming accesories
June/July 2010

Swimming accessory standards

Do yours float or sink?

Every year at least 500 South Africans drown – nearly half of them children under 15 years. Training aids to teach all ages to learn to swim are vital tools to reduce the number of drownings. Furthermore, if SA wants to continue to produce top class competitive swimmers, affordable training aids are needed to coach the future champions from a young age. Yet, new certification standards for swimming training aids have created a crisis in the local supply of swimming aids, reports FANIE HEYNS

It has proved as much of an effort for some local manufacturers attempting to adhere to the new SA standards and specifications on flotation aids to acquire SABS-approval, as it is for a kid in a learn-to-swim-floatsuit trying to survive in shark-infested waters.

Compulsory specifications for swimming aids published in the Government Gazette of 6 February 2009 have had local manufacturers scratching their heads. The new standards not only apply to buoyancy aids, but also swimming aids used “whilst learning part of a swimming stroke. It includes devices held in the hands, by the body, or between the legs” (therefore kick boards, pull buoys, pool noodles etc.).

Although the specifications bring local products on par with international specifications, thus making it easy to export, the manufacturers bemoan the exorbitant costs involved, and the confusion about what processes need to be followed.

Local manufacturers are especially taken aback by the fact that every individual component used in manufacturing, and each item in a swimming aid range, must be tested. This could cost R7 000 each — even if they had met all the requirement of the old SABS standards, Sports Trader reported in October/November 2009.

This could easily result in an additional cost of R150 000 for a range — which already resulted in a local manufacturer of aquatic products discontinuing the manufacture of these products. “In order to recoup the additional cost of R150 000 for testing, I would need to sell two million more aqua products,” says Jaco Kirsten of Orbit Sports. “With our very small market, that is impossible. I therefore discontinued my aqua range.”

Because there are no South African testing centres, the cost of testing local products is ten times more expensive than for international manufacturers, as local manufacturers have to send items overseas and pay in euro’s and pounds.

“I know the products we have been manufacturing up to now are top quality,” says Kirsten. “But, with the added cost of the new tests, I would have to sell my products at four times the current price. In SA, 90% of the market can only afford to buy bottom-end products, and they will not be able to afford those prices. Schools will simply stop buying aquatic products like kick boards, pool noodles and other devices needed to teach children to swim, because they can’t afford them.”

Local manufacturers also complain about burdensome processes and the lack of accessible information for applicants who want to have their products certificated.

Second Skins, for example, invested between R20 000-R25 000 over eighteen frustrating months in a failed attempt to acquire certification from the SABS (currently the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications or NRCS), says Christine Pulvermacher, the company’s head of communications.

During that time the company lost out on a 10 000-unit order because of their failed bid to acquire the certification.

No information

Pulvermacher says she struggled in vain for several months to receive answers from the SABS as to how, where and when to have the necessary tests done to get certification.

After three or four months, she finally received a copy of the tests, the EN13138 — but she could not get confirmation as to where the tests have to be done.

Finally, she contacted an international standards testing company in Cape Town, who told her that the products would have to be sent to China for testing and approval. After several follow-up calls, the company is still in the dark as to the process involved and the final tests and approval has still not been completed.

“We have had a lack of information, no follow-up or return from people we have contacted, and a classical lack of non-performance by government departments,” says Pulvermacher.

The implementation by the SABS or NRCS (the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications) was also highly prejudicial, claims Peter Constan-Tatos, marketing director of SWIMEEZY. Local products complying with the old standards were removed from retailers' shelves when the new standards came into effect. That was despite an agreement on a phasing-in period, where existing stock on retailers’ shelves would not be interfered with for a period of two seasons, in an attempt to allow the old stock to sell through.

The old standard was replaced, not because there was a list of accidents and bad performance of products, but simply to bring SA into line with international standards.

There was therefore no urgency to implement the new standards and the harsh actions from SABS/NRCS were detrimental to local manufacturers, says Constan-Tatos.

Most international manufacturers have their products already tested to these standards for their EU customers, and their products can therefore be placed on SA shelves, while manufacturers don’t have certificated product to compete, he believes.

Importers have problems

But, importers of swimming aids are also encountering problems with permits.

Impossible local requirements can possibly be fatal to the local swimming aids-industry, warns Kevin de Wet, director of De Wet Sports. All the products they import pass the European standards, which the local standards are based on, and their products are certificated by the international supplier so that they can sell their products to all the European distributors.

“We are finding, however, that certain requirements of the local standards are very cumbersome and almost impossible to achieve. This is extremely frustrating as it is a requirement that is not based on the international standards,” he says.

“As SA is a relatively small market in relation to the rest of the world, the major manufacturers cannot change their production processes to accommodate what we feel is a superfluous requirement.

“We are not the only distributor with this problem and I believe we face the very real prospect of not having any swimming aids available in SA for next summer,” says De Wet.

Polyotter, who imports their swimming aids from China, also had numerous problems with authorities in an attempt to secure sales permits, adds Jenny Weinberg. “Lots of certificates, poor communication and lack of available staff are part of the problem.”

Weinberg says she agrees there should be certain specifications and standards as these aids are used for children and one has to ensure they are protected as much as possible. Over-regulating is unnecessary, though.

“I do believe that if a product has been tested and approved overseas, the NCRS should approve the product. These products are tested with the uttermost stringency and should be good enough. It means that the work is just being duplicated and expenses are added to the product.”

But, cautions Nigel Prout of Opal Sports, distributor of the internationally-certified Swimfit range, it is no use for local manufacturers to complain about recurring costs and the affect on sales. “They need to conform to the standards. It’s no use complaining. If they produce sub-standard safety equipment, lives are at stake. One needs to know that the products you are purchasing are destined to do the job it is intended to do. Can one put a price on a life?”

Yet, the price to test an article should be made as inexpensive as possible to get the best possible product on the shelves, he adds.

International brands

International brands with the equivalent EN or other international certification have had fewer problems.

Up to now, Arena have not imported learn to swim products, but following the new regulations requiring certification of all training aids, they have been approached by a large retailer to supply these products as they have the necessary approvals in place on an international basis, says Peter Reeves of local distributor Leisure Holdings. They are currently in discussions with the SABS on how to apply for the South African approval of the items. They have forwarded all of the International approval ratings and await a reply from the SABS in Pretoria.

Action-Ize, the local distributor and licensee of the international TYR swimwear and accessories brand recently opened a distributorship in Germany, which will be run from Cape Town, and all their products therefore conform to European standards, says Peter Baker.

The Finis range of swimming training equipment has the American CPSIA and international CE (European Conformity) approval on all their flotation devices and many other products in order to properly be certified worldwide, says local distributor Joe Schoeman, of Swimming International.

Other swim accesories stay afloat

While the SA swimming aid market is struggling to stay afloat, sales of other swimming accessories are much more buoyant. There are, however, also some safety issues that retailers should be aware of when selling other accessories.

In America, all products for children now need Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) approval — this was initially for baby products, but was expanded to include any product designed for, or intended primarily for, children 12 years or younger, says Joe Schoeman of Swimming International, local distributor of Finis swimwear and accessories.

The CPSIA is especially concerned about two issues: the lead and phthalates content of toys for children. Although most sporting goods have been exempt from this definition of toys up to now (except those made specifically for young children), sports products that children are likely to suck or chew on, like swimming goggles, have to conform to the specified levels. There has, however, been a proposal to expand the product safety requirements to all youth sports and fitness products and the US sporting goods industry had until June 21 this year to oppose the proposal.

From February this year the lead content in children’s products sold in the US may not be above 300ppm (parts per million) and from August 14 2011, this will need to drop to 100ppm, if technologically feasible.

Phthalates are a group of oily, colourless chemicals that can be used to make plastics soft and pliable — and are sometimes used in PVC goggles or caps. These chemicals have been linked to health risks like cancer, sterility in men, obesity, asthma etc. Three phthalates have been banned outright in the US since February 2009, and three more are being reviewed by the consumer product safety commission.

“TYR was the first brand to apply the kid safe label, which means that our swimming accessories contain no lead or phthalates,” says Baker.

As far as he’s aware, there are no compulsory standard specifications for swimming accessories such as goggles, caps and other accessories in SA, says Peter Reeves, director of Leisure Holdings. From an Arena point of view, all of the goggles come standard with anti-fog and UV-shield, and all are PVC-free. All of their silicone and latex caps are also PVC free.

Water polo caps

While FINA creates rules for swimwear, caps, and goggles that can be used in swimming competitions, these rules are more to make sure that a swimmer does not have an advantage over another swimming with a certain piece of equipment, rather than enforcing global safety standards, says Schoeman. He says the special rules and regulations regarding swimming caps and water polo caps, are not so burdensome that it hurts the development of the swimming cap.

On the contrary — sales have continued to climb, adds Nigel Prout of Opal Sports, distributor of the Swimfit range.

FINA, for example, has specifications regarding the colours that may be used in water polo caps — e.g. one set in white and another in dark colours — the size and placement of the numbers, and the colours of the goalkeeper’s cap.

But, it seems that many teams do not adhere to the rules and have caps custom-made in team colours that include patterns, says Reeves. They supply their caps in sets — one set in white with black numbering, with the goalkeeper’s cap red with a black number; the other set is royal blue with white numbering, with the goalkeeper’s cap red with a white number.

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