Few childhoods are complete without taping a bunch of firecrackers to an action figure or beheading the occasional Barbie doll, not to mention modifying the shit out of a cheap drone to see how fast you can get it going before the rotors crack. As creative as all this destruction might be, it's also not exactly as dangerous as we might hope, thanks to professional toy breakers.
Migdalia Delgado yanks out eyeballs, disconnects limbs, and burns fur as part of her work as lab operations manager for Intertek in Arlington Heights, Illinois. She oversees the "abuse" (and occasional annihilation) of toys for safety and performance testing. Toy companies from more than 100 countries bring their products to her lab to see if they pass her stress test. We found out what it's like torching teddy bears on a regular basis, and whether that has any impact on a person's worldview.
VICE: How'd you get into this line of work?
Migdalia Delgado: I was in customer service for many years. I wanted to go out there and do something different. I went back to school and received my associate in computer electronics. At that point I was working as a service tech repairing medical devices. I went back to school to receive my bachelors in technical management and I got hired on to Intertek. It's more in my interests—looking at things, trying to analyze them, thinking outside the box at what can actually happen.
It says on your website you do real life child observation, what does that entail?
We're just doing testing. Intertek has over 1,000 facilities. So the consulting in the development stage is separate from our testing facility. That would be a consult, where they bring kids in to test the toy.
What test is the most fun?
"Use and abuse" testing, because products behave differently. What you think isn't a hazard can be. It covers a variety of testing. I don't want to sound like I'm evil to toys either! Again, the intent is not to be abusive, it's just to make sure the product is going to be safe on the market.
What does use and abuse include?
We'll obviously burn toys to see how fast the burn rate is.
With a blowtorch?
We don't burn them with a blowtorch! We actually use a candle. We would take a toy, light a candle, let it burn for a specific amount of time and see how quickly it actually burns through. We use calibrated equipment specific to the standard requirement to make sure we're testing appropriately and we're able to repeat the test regardless of what lab actually does the testing.
We would do drop tests. We'll vary the height, quantity and orientation depending on the age grade (either 0-3 years, 3-8 years, 8-12 years, and 12 and above). If it's battery-operated, we'll flip the batteries and see what happens. Some of our toy products go through extreme temperature testing, where we'd expose it to different chambers at different temperatures—from freezing to 120 degrees fahrenheit with humidity. There's cycling, there's a lot of pulling, tugging—kind of simulating what an actual child would do to your product. We do testing on sharp edges.
How is sharp edge testing done?
After the use and abuse testing, we test the product to see if there are any sharp edges that could potentially cut a child's skin. That's done with a piece of equipment and a tape that simulates the tenderness of a child's skin. It's placed on a mandrel and you apply a certain load to it and it rotates 360 degrees. Once you pass the possible sharp edge over that tape—if it cuts through the tape—it wouldn't pass the standard.
So you're not just scraping it against your skin?
No we don't abuse our employees! [laughs]
How do you test for choking hazards?
Part of use and abuse is small parts testing. There's a cylinder with an angle at the bottom of it that simulates the throat of a child. Any piece (before or after we've done the use and abuse testing) that falls off of the toy—if they can flip it in the cylinder on its own weight and in its entirety, it's considered a small part—and a choking hazard for a child.
What about noxious chemicals?
That's part of the regulatory testing that is mandated for toy products. Chemical testings for leads, phthalates—obviously your product can't contain certain parts per million depending on the country's standard that you're testing it to. We want to make sure there isn't too much lead or phthalates in a product that a child can drink or put in their mouth, or anything like that.
Do you have kids? Do you see all toys as potential death traps now?
I have two young men, 16 and 19, so they're out of the toy phase. But since I've started working here, I definitely look at products differently. I have nieces, nephews—now I catch myself when I go to buy a toy, kind of looking at it, opening it up, thinking let me just pull on it and seewhat this does. So I do practice at home.
What toys are fun to destroy?
Definitely the burning of teddy bears sticks out—only because the reaction of people that you're showing that test to. It's fun. Another one is the tricycle—there's a test we perform to ensure the wheels won't get damaged after impact. Another one, we had to create a ramp to determine the friction on the brakes of a toy car. We had to have an employee sit in the car and try to stop it on an incline. Needless to say, once the brakes were released they did run into one of our walls. It was fun.
What do you do with all the busted up toys?
The vendors make the final decision. Once we're finished final testing and issue the report, we ask the manufacturer if they'd like it back, or we'll destroy it for them. We have a retention policy where we keep products—especially those that don't pass the requirement—in case there's any follow up testing that needs to take place on that sample. It depends, again, on the manufacturer.
Have you ever been floored at how dangerous a toy was as you were safety testing it?
My job is to use it at the most extreme—especially for the performance testing. But I don't think I've come across any specific toy here that was like: Wow, it blew up when it shouldn't have.
What's your favorite part of the job?
I'm testing a product that could potentially be harmful to a kid. Being able to help people—and putting a safe product on the market—that drives me every day.
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