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The safety geeks who rescue us before disaster happens

If your Christmas tree doesn’t go up in flames, thank the scientists at Underwriters Laboratory.

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Safety snoop: John Drengenberg and his Underwriters Laboratory colleagues go to extreme lengths to test consumer product safety.

Jasmine Scott/The Christian Science Monitor

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Chicago

The best indication that John Drengenberg has been doing his job well, for 40 years, is that you’ve never heard of him.
Most of the things he makes his living worrying about have probably never bothered you, either. You’re not, in all likelihood, terrified of being killed by your TV. You’ve probably realized your child’s Easy Bake is unlikely to burn down your house, and you no doubt pour a cup of coffee without wondering whether the handle will fall off in your hands, spilling six cups of hot coffee all over your crème wool pants.

It is equally unlikely that these things, and thousands of other odd-ball possibilities, will happen, thanks in part to Mr. Drengenberg. He’s spent his career testing almost everything in the average home – from the shingles on the roof to the wiring in walls to the microwave in the kitchen – and making sure it won’t short circuit, blow up, or otherwise injure the American consumer. In what amounts to a chess of mortality, Drengenberg has spent his professional life imagining worst-case scenarios for almost every product on the market, and then trying to avoid them.

“We’ve done such a good job for 114 years, nobody cares. They say, ‘I bought it at Sears. It’s got to be safe. Somebody tested it,’” he says. “We’re the somebody.”

Drengenberg works at Underwriters Laboratories (UL), an independent nonprofit that sets the standards for product safety in America. Its 63 laboratories around the world test and approve almost everything sold in America – every hair dryer, iPod, or length of wiring with a UL seal – with a few exceptions: cars, cosmetics, and food, for example.

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