Germany's system of technical inspections started 150 years ago and now performs a wide range of checkups globally. But just how good are these certifiers, if inspected dams or breast implants turn out to be dangerous?
For Germans, the acronym TÜV is certainly a household name. It stands for Technischer Überwachungsverein, or Technical Inspection Association in English.
Most ordinary Germans associate the TÜV with the compulsory technical checks their cars usually undergo every two years, with a certificate of roadworthiness glued onto license plates, if the vehicles in question are found to be in good condition.
The TÜV certificate is generally understood to be a symbol of safety and can certainly influence a potential client's decision to buy a car from the current owner or not.
But checking cars is only a small proportion of what TÜV associations in Germany and abroad do today. They may scrutinize wind mills in Sweden, inspect machinery in Spain or certify a dam in Brazil.
Among the biggest, competing inspection groups nowadays are TÜV Rheinland, TÜV Nord, Dekra and TÜV Süd, the latter in the spotlight right now after a tailings dam recently inspected by it collapsed in Brazil last week, killing hundreds of people.
How it all began
There were also many casualties and disasters during the Industrial Revolution. With a lot of inventions being tried out back in the 19th century, not everything went smoothly, to say the least.
There are ample records of the explosion of a steam boiler at a brewery in Mannheim for instance. The 1865 incident motivated a group of engineers to found a first technical inspection association called DÜV (Steam Boiler Inspection Association). Many similar organizations followed in other places across the nation before they all came together in an umbrella organization in 1873, issuing first standards for construction and maintenance.
Inspectors reached out for more and more areas in the process, including the testing of electrical appliances and elevators.
"On the technical level, state safety supervision was privatized," Michael Adams told DW. He did extensive research on the TÜV system as a professor at Hamburg University. Adams notes that those associations back then were nonprofit, with the Prussian state paying the engineers decent salaries so that they could work independently.
No matter what structural changes have occurred since then, the TÜV system continues to play a crucial role. "We could all be dead, were it not for the critical work of TÜV inspectors," Adams insists. "More than ever, there's a huge demand for independent technical tests and certificates."
Having said that, there's no denying the watershed change that happened in the 1990s. With reunited Germany liberalizing the inspection market, former monopolies became a thing of the past.
Regional associations merged into huge entities, employing tens of thousands of people each in Germany and abroad. They log revenues into the billions of euros annually as joint-stock companies.
"There was a time when TÜV was all about technical safety — now it's also about being profitable in a highly contested global market," Adams argues. That means trying to land the most lucrative contracts.
Scope of inspections differs widely
What also happens — on a contractual basis — is that only the documentation for a given product may be scrutinized, while material tests are not carried out at all. Newspaper reports highlighted a case involving TÜV Süd, which had certified a new hip replacement on behalf of Austrian producer Falcon Medical.
A patient later complained about the complications caused by that highly risky hip prosthesis and demanded compensation. But TÜV Süd pointed out it had only been commissioned to check whether the product was in line with EU regulations and norms, meaning it only checked the papers, but was not involved in any material tests.
Another case involved TÜV Rheinland, which had approved faulty breast implants produced with counterfeit silicone and produced by French firm Poly Implant Prothese (PIP).
In October 2018, France's highest court did not buy TÜV's argument that it could not possibly have detected the fraud committed by PIP (using cheaper materials than documented). The judges said TÜV Rheinland's obligations required it to check the documents on the manufacturer's raw materials as well as staging surprise visits to PIP. TÜV was ordered to pay a fine.
Who polices the police?
All TÜV associations have liability riders in their statutes. "We shall be liable for damages, irrespective of the legal ground, in the context of fault-based liability, in the event of intent or gross negligence," says TÜV Süd for instance.
But negligence is hard to prove. It stands to reason that inspection associations have no interest in featuring in scandals like the current one involving the huge mudslide in Brazil. And they assure us time and again that their ethical standards are high, as is their independence. But seeing is believing.
"Where's the TÜV for the TÜV," Michael Adams asks. There needs to be some kind of state supervision, he demands, involving random checks of inspections and the withdrawal of licenses for those not up to the mark.
"After all, a similar supervision is in place in the finance sector, where BaFin [Germany's financial watchdog] keeps an eye on the activities of systemic banks."