Some thoughts about warning labels after looking at the 1998 and 2002 ANSI standards revisions:

Do Product Warning Labels Win Lawsuits?

In these United States, nothing can prevent people from suing. The object should not be to prevent, but to win the lawsuit. A good warning label is a good defense. A bad warning is grounds for a lawsuit. Some background:

Torts law in the United States derives from English law regarding land. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, land was the means of production in an agricultural society, and land ownership was synonymous with wealth. Landowners were the people to sue if you wanted to actually recover any money from your lawsuit.

Since the law always favors the rich, English common law was slanted heavily in favor of landowners. Trespassers could hardly ever win a lawsuit. As long as you didn’t shoot a trespasser for sport, no lawsuit was permitted. As for “invitees” or “visitors”, however, people invited to be on the land for a business purpose (e.g. a shop customer) things were a little different. After all, rich people might be shop customers, and rich people slip and fall on freshly waxed floors. In fact, old English judges slip and fall on freshly waxed floors.

Invitees were, of course, expected to look out for their own safety. However, if a dangerous condition was created by the owner and the invitee might be expected not to notice it, the property owner had two choices:

  • correct the dangerous condition, or
  • warn of the danger.

Why give the owner the option to warn? Because there may be situations in which it is less expensive or more convenient to leave the dangerous condition in place. A warning allows the customer to look after himself, and if he refuses to heed the warning, he has no one to blame but himself.

This doctrine, for better or worse, has been imported into the realm of product safety. Take, for example, a hammer.

There is no way to make a useful hammer perfectly safe. Some things, when you hit them with a hammer, shatter. Pieces can fly in your eyes. Experience shows that people underestimate the risk or are unaware of the shatter-prone nature of the material they are smacking with hammers. We can all debate endlessly whether a risk is obvious or not. Hammers do not come with warnings saying: ‘Serious Injury May Result from Striking Fingers with Hammer”, partly because that risk is obvious. In addition, however the risk of smacking your own thumb cannot be avoided with a device, like safety goggles. The risk of eye injury may seem obvious to you, but unfortunately, statistics show it just isn’t quite obvious enough. People need to be reminded to wear safety glasses.

Warning labels should not be used to evade liability when a product could be made safe but the manufacturer does not want to, for cost/pricing reasons. I think a good example is the use of GFI circuit interrupters in household appliances that are routinely used around water. Yes, people should be warned not to drop the hair-dryer in the tub, but why not put the GFI on it? Because it costs money. Another example is the hot coffee problem. The fact is, you should not serve 180 ºF liquids to people in cars. It’s dumb, and a warning doesn’t help. The solution, in my opinion, is not to put warnings on the cups, the solution is to serve coffee at 130 ºF. These questions can be debated endlessly, and in a lawsuit would probably be resolved with a battle of safety expert testimony. Warnings labels, on the other hand, can be evaluated based on some simple principles and industry standards.

There are good warnings and bad warnings. A good hammer warning would note the risk of eye injury and recommend safety goggles. A bad hammer warning would be: “WARNING: you can hurt yourself with this thing! No, really! Don’t sue us if you do!”. I would consider that an engraved invitation to sue.

ANSI Standards for Warning Labels

Part of the problem with warning labels in the past is that they have conveyed very little useful information. This encourages people to ignore them.

The ever-popular chain-saw warning label, "Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands or genitals.", for example, fails to explain how you are, in fact, supposed to stop the chain.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z535 standards, ANSI Z535.3 (safety symbols) and ANSI Z535.4 (product safety signs and labels) have undergone major revisions in 1998 and 2002. The new standards result in signs and labels that are more readable, present more information and contain graphic depictions of the safety risk.

ANSI Z535 now reflects that the purpose of a warning label is to:

  • alert a user to specific hazards,
  • indicate the degree of risk,
  • warn of the consequences when subjected to the hazard, and
  • instruct how to avoid the hazard.

A warning should be conspicuous and located in the immediate vicinity of the hazard. The warning should be created with consideration to the expected life and environment of the product. For example, if a product is used outdoors, the material and ink used in a warning should be UV resistant so that the label does not fade or disintegrate from exposure to the sun.

ANSI Z535.4 sets out three levels of risk, each identified by a specific signal word to identify the level of hazard. They are:

  • DANGER (red): an imminently hazardous situation that, if not avoided, will result in death or serious injury;
  • WARNING: (orange) a potentially hazardous condition that, if not avoided, could result in death or serious injury; and
  • CAUTION: (yellow) a potentially hazardous situation that, if not avoided, may result in moderate or minor injury.

These warning phrases are now supposed to be placed in a box, leaving the rest of sign in white space to include words or symbols explaining the consequences of the risk (picture showing fingers getting crushed in machine) and how to avoid it. Other components of the ANSI warnings are set out in ANSI Z535.3, including a symbol or pictorial panel (a red circle and slash, connoting “do not”) and a message panel for specific information regarding the hazards presented.

ANSI Standards: