/ Shopping

We expect better safety advice from DIY shop floor staff

Man using a chainsaw

Our research has found worrying gaps in the safety advice being offered by DIY stores, especially when selling chainsaws and lawnmowers. But is it the responsibility of shop floor staff to tell us how to use them safely?

When shopping for everyday items like food and clothes, I don’t usually ask for a lot from shop floor staff.

In the supermarket it’s enough if they can point me in the right direction of the Marmite – and elsewhere I often find myself deflecting offers of help with the standard ‘No thanks, I’m just looking’.

But when shopping for a higher-priced item – especially one I know little about – I would definitely appreciate some tailored advice. And when it comes to potentially dangerous products, the very least I would expect is some decent safety advice, even if the staff didn’t know all the details of each product.

Shop flaw advice

Our latest investigation into the advice offered in DIY stores found that some staff didn’t seem to have a clue about safety. When selling chainsaws, six of the 18 stores we visited failed to advise us on using goggles and gloves – the most basic safety equipment.

But is it the staff’s responsibility to be dishing out this kind of safety advice? It would certainly be useful if they did – and the results of our investigation are now with the training departments of both Homebase and B&Q. We hope this will lead to them putting more emphasis on safety in their training so that staff can give at least basic safety advice.

The most crucial thing however, is that they stop giving out bad – and potentially dangerous – advice as we saw in some stores. One member of staff told us not to bother with chainsaw safety equipment, saying ‘I wouldn’t use it’ and several others told us that a chainsaw would be fine to use on shrubbery – when actually this could be particularly dangerous.

Your experiences

This is our third investigation to uncover whether shop floor staff know what they are talking about. We’ve previously found staff in major electrical stores baffled by basic questions and offering variable advice in mobile phone shops.

We are always keen to hear about your experiences of advice on the shop floor. Where have you been impressed – or let down – by how much the staff knew about the products they were selling?


Do we? I certainly wouldn’t trust staff in a DIY shed for any product knowledge or advice, let alone my personal safety. But then if you go to a car dealership, do you expect them to instruct you on how to use a car safely, warn you about wearing your seatbelt and not to exceed the speed limit? And what about Internet sales? Where does the line of responsiblity stop?

Power tools like chainsaws can be lethal, even in the hands of a professional, so a casual shop worker is never going to have sufficient experience to advise a member of the public how to use one safely. I think this is one type of product where caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) has a more literal meaning.

Some manufacturers, like Stihl, will only sell their products face-to-face through authorised dealers, where you can get some advice if you need it, but a 5-minute demo of a chain saw out the back of the shop is still not adequate training.

I cannot see any reason why shops should provide safety advice unless they advertise that service and have suitably trained staff to provide good quality advice. A little learning is a dangerous thing.

In contrast, hire shops dealing with the general public should have properly trained staff who can provide good quality safety advice and documentation for specialist equipment. As reported in Which? magazine, some hire shops are better than others.

If DIY shops are expected to provide safety advice then perhaps we should have fast food shops explaining the health risks of eating their products unless consumed as part of a balanced diet and exercise regime.

Phil says:
20 July 2011

You’ll generally find proper safety advice included in the instructions. I wouldn’t necessarily expect the staff to know.

I know that I was an unusual, part-time, member of staff at B&Q, [I left in 2003] (I had done a Chain-saw Maintenance and Use Course with , along with various other health and safety courses, due to having a smallholding and wanting to do the right thing.) But I worked on Tools and Hardware in the store, which was nowhere near the Garden Centre area where the chainsaws were sold.
Despite my having told management of my skills and knowledge, there were very few occurrences where I was called upon to advise upon the various health and safety equipment required for the safe operation of a chainsaw (which B&Q don’t sell), let alone the real need for the purchaser of the tool to complete a Maintenance and Use Course. The saw chain cuts a 5mm gash in any part that the working chain touches. Not something to pick up and use without knowledge and experience.

Health and safety has always been part of my life and working life. Electricity bites and can only be signed off by someone with the correct qualification. I always used to advise customers to seek advise from a professional Electrician.

Training is supposed to be getting better at B&Q, but staff at most stores are being “let go” and recruitment seems to be on hold.

This is a case of a little knowledge being dangerous. I would expect a Toolhire business or Builders Merchant to offer advice, and even to refuse to hire or sell professional equipment to non professionals.

Ideally DIY stores would do the same, or simply not sell or supply hazardous equipment. However, there are a lot of people who do have the common sense to look for information on the web, check the instructions, get the right safety equipment, and use kit safely.

Manufacturers and DIY stores could produce and display short, punchy and clear DVDs and graphic user guides to make the risks, and essential safety measures clearer. That would help staff, and customers. Users too arrogant/stupid to take note would be candidates for a Darwin award.

I think that Which is wrong to look to DIY stores to provide such important advice. Store staff are always going to be of variable quality, and some may be part time etc. However Which could usefully look at the instruction manuals that come with such products. My impression is that they often have pages of warnings that are impossible to take in. For example the Ryobi RCS3535A manual has over 50 separate bullet points of advice. This may satisfy the legal duty to users but frankly it is not a practical way of helping users take the right precautions.

dave mclean says:
24 July 2011

No, I don’t think store staff should be given the responsibility to advise on safety.Its time we began to take responsibility for our own actions and stop expecting to be “nannied” from morn till night.
The instruction manuals contain ample information if people will read them. You will never provide nor legislate for idiots.

C R Liversidge says:
25 July 2011

Re chainsaws. Your expert’s advice for the use of gloves and eye protection as a minimum when using a chainsaw is ludicrously inadequate. Chainsaws are used for cutting round timber, firewood etc either standing or felled and requires using the tool close to the body, legs and feet all of which are at risk from injury. It follows that the legs and feet must also be protected from the possibility of contact with a moving chain. Proper equipment is available and should always be used. Sustained use of a chainsaw also requires professional training.

SJ says:
28 July 2011

Echoing the rest – I only expect store staff to be able to show me where an item is, and to ring me up when I decide what I’m buying (and even that is too much to ask sometimes). The onus is on the buyer to know what they’re buying, what they need to use with it, and to *read the enclosed information from the manufacturer*. Those who don’t bother to inform themselves before using products are simply Darwin award candidates, and the rest of us shouldn’t be made to suffer for their laziness and/or stupidity. Which?, let off this one, we don’t need yet more nannying.

Jim Fletcher says:
31 July 2011

I was concerned when you stated that Homebase has recommended a Bosch Rotak 40 lawnmower to a customer as I have had a very bad experience with this very thing. In March 2008 I purchased a Rotak 40 on the recommendation of the staff at Homebase, Drakehouse, Sheffield and also took out their own 3 years warranty. In July 2011 the machine broke down and a local repairer told be it had ‘thrown’ a secment of the commutator, wrecking the motor and of course it was uneconomical to repair. The repairer also told me that he had found that this was a common occurrance with the Rotak 40 and that he had several customers who had experienced the same breakdown after a relatively short period, usually around 3 years. I felt that the machine should have lasted much longer than this as I had only used it for light domestic grasscutting. I telephoned Homebase who just insisted it was out of warranty and when I tried to discuss my rights under the Sale of Goods Act that the machine was unsatisfactory, the phone was slammed down on me. I attended the store with the machine and of course the usual from the person in charge was that it was company policy that the customer must take this up with the manufacturers. I pointed out that they were wrong and that it was their responsibility and they agreed to contact Bosch. They have told me that they haver done so and that Bosch deny any responsibility. I don’t believe Homebase and I think the Bosch Rotak machines are of very poor quality and not built to last much longer than 3 years

I have had 5 lawnmowers all of which have suffered from the clutch going. To repair the clutch costs about £60.00. The last lawnmower we bought, as a best buy from Which, 2 years ago, and its clutch went after one year, like most of them. Lawnmowers have 2 stroke engines that we know will go on for ever. It is the clutches that are the problem. So can Which devise a method to check the longevity of clutches?

It would appear to be a nice little earner – great little engine, shame about the clutch.

Clutches should be guaranteed for a time scale that reflects a reasonable service life.