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The perils of product testing
May 24, 2010
by Ivan Raconteur

We have probably all had occasion to complain about our jobs at one time or another.

Perhaps we are forced to work long hours or complete unpleasant tasks. Maybe we work for an imbecile or a tyrant (or worse yet, both). It is possible that we are underpaid and unappreciated. Our duties may be dangerous, dirty, or dull. But, no matter what our grievance might be, we are probably better off than people who are employed as product testers.

This occurred to me recently when I took advantage of the end-of-season clearance sales and replaced my Sorel winter boots, which gave me years of reliable service.

I looked at many options before making a decision. Some of the boots I looked at were rated to 40 degrees below zero. Others were rated to 60 below, and some to 100 below.

As I did my research, I began to wonder how they arrive at those ratings.

I came to the conclusion that there must be an army of heroic men and women out there braving the elements in all sorts of weather so that the rest of us can make better decisions when we are shopping.

They must be tough as nails, these modern-day adventurers.

The problem with testing equipment to be sure that it functions properly at 40 (or 60 or 100) degrees below zero, is that one has to exceed those parameters in order to determine the limit.

Companies publish these ratings for a wide range of outdoor products, from boots to tents to sleeping bags.

It probably is not such a bad life to be the guy who tests a garment or a sleeping bag to determine that it should be rated to 30 or 40 degrees above zero. But the poor slob who is forced to hang out on a glacier somewhere testing things to 100 below has a rough job ahead of him. It makes me cold just thinking about it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the stooges who test flame or heat-resistant fabrics and garments must have some tough days, as well.

Whether they are freezing their toes off or being roasted alive, these people must experience some uncomfortable days at work.

Nor do I envy the people who are called upon to go out and test “snake-proof” boots. What happens to the ones that don’t make the cut?

It must give one a sinking feeling to find oneself standing in a snake pit and discovering that the snake-proof boots one is testing aren’t quite adequate.

I imagine that modern ropes and climbing gear are all tested automatically by machine. I can’t help wondering, though, how they tested these things in the old days. The poor saps who got stuck testing ropes that failed probably didn’t make it in to work the next day.

If we look around us, we will see all sorts of products that we use every day and that we take for granted.

Somewhere along the way, though, there must have been some fearless product tester who made sure they were safe.

Who tests ladders to determine the appropriate weight rating? Do they have a squad of fat guys of various weights lined up to take turns climbing to the top to see which one will cause the ladder to fail, or do they have a team of regular-sized guys, and just send them up one after the other until they all come tumbling down on a broken ladder?

Manufacturers often understate the weight limits of products. I know this because I have scaled ladders and passed labels that reflect a weight that, in my case, would be more a matter of wishful thinking than reality.

The understated warning labels are no doubt a result of the litigious nature of our society, and the fact that there are lawyers lurking behind every tree or skulking beneath every stone. The manufacturers apparently leave themselves a margin of error to avoid getting sued.

It must be a life fraught with misery and woe for a professional product tester.

Things may not be so bad when the engineers and designers get it right, but how about all the products that fail? There must be hundreds of them, but we never hear those stories.

Reports about personal flotation devices (life jackets) that don’t float, parachutes that don’t open, or bulletproof vests that aren’t quite bulletproof rarely see the light of day, but they must be out there.

I suspect that in extreme cases of product failure, the victims don’t last long enough to testify, and that must make things easier for the companies that produce the ill-fated prototypes.

Evidence suggests that there is an endless supply of people out there who are not too bright (and would therefore make excellent candidates for the job of product tester), so if the manufacturers lose a few along the way, they are doubtless able to fill the vacancies with no trouble.

It must be nearly impossible for product testers to buy insurance, though. It is difficult to imagine underwriters showing any enthusiasm for such risky prospects. Insurance companies are notorious for not wanting to insure anyone unless they are guaranteed that the company will come out ahead in the transaction.

No matter how bleak our employment situation might seem some days, we can take comfort in the fact that whatever our job is, we are still better off than those intrepid men and women who spend their days pushing products to the limit so we won’t have to discover those limits the hard way.