Share this article

print logo

CAUTION <br> WARNING LABELS RANGE FROM THE SENSIBLE TO THE SILLY

Did you hear the one about the cardboard sun shield? Although it's designed to cover the entire windshield of a parked car, the manufacturer still warns: "Do not drive with sun shield in place."

Or how about the ordinary household iron that comes with this extraordinary caveat: "Warning: Never iron clothes while they are being worn."

The serious business of product safety labels has taken a silly spin in recent years, as manufacturers have issued warnings that border on the absurd.

And consumers have taken notice.

Some warning labels seem so ridiculous that at least one watchdog group -- the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch -- holds an annual "Wacky Warning Label Contest" and posts results on its Web site, www.mlaw.org

The "never-iron-clothes-while-they- are-being-worn" warning is this year's winning entry.

Last year it was this label found on a folding baby stroller: "Remove child before folding."

The year before that? A label with a hair dryer that reads, "Never use hair dryer while sleeping."

The flip side to all this is that warning labels are good for your health.

Do-it-yourselfers who tackle home improvement projects should be particularly diligent about reading warning labels, package inserts and users' manuals on the products they use, for example.

"We need warnings on products with hidden hazards that consumers may not be aware of in normal use," said Gerald Goldhaber, president of Goldhaber Research Associates, Amherst, and a national expert on safety warnings.

Goldhaber helps companies test and develop new warning labels, ensuring that information is effectively communicated to consumers. He also helps defend their existing system of warning labels, testifying as an expert in court.

His clients include such companies as GMC, Ford Motor, Owens Corning Fiberglas, Seven-Up, Westinghouse Electric, American Home Products, Playtex and more.

"If you are not aware of something, that is the purpose of the label so hopefully you will take corrective actions and keep yourself safe," Goldhaber said.

It may be a label on a water heater warning that the pilot light can ignite flammable materials placed too close to the tank.

It may be important safety information regarding the proper use of a common household product such as Raid.

Or it may be a warnings related to, say, the potential dangers of handling fiberglass insulation or working with tall ladders.

Manufacturers offer guidelines on wearing dust masks, respirators and other protective gear; ventilating project areas, and properly storing potentially toxic products such as insecticides and bleach.

Who is most likely to read these and other warning labels?

First-time users of a product. Women. And individuals who know someone who has misused a product and gotten hurt -- or who perceive the hazard to be particularly dangerous.

Who isn't?

People who are familiar with the product they are using. And teen-age boys, who are more prone to take risks, said Goldhaber, an associate professor of communication at the University at Buffalo.

The bottom line: If you can't easily see a warning on a product, don't understand it or simply ignore the warning altogether, you can end up getting injured or even killed.

"The problem, though, is that because of the litigation environment, what should be considered a communication exercise has turned into a legal exercise," he said.

Companies, fearing lawsuits, have gotten so gun-shy that they slap warning labels on everything in sight.

"Everybody is suing everybody. That leads to silly warnings," Goldhaber said.

One of his favorites is found on a package of razor blades.

"Caution: Blade is sharp."

"The problem is if you put silly warnings on products, people will become more cynical of any warning. If you are warning about everything, you are warning about nothing," he said.

Hmmm . . . which leads us to a few of the finalists in that annual "Wacky Warning Label Contest" mentioned earlier:

(These are for real.)

-- A 13-inch wheel on a wheelbarrow comes with this warning: "Not intended for highway use."

-- A fireplace lighting gadget cautions: "Do not use near fire, flame or sparks."

-- A spray can of underarm deodorant warns: "Do not spray in eyes."

All this has led to additional nonsense, where people actually dream up fictional warning labels, often as part of contests, and have them published on the Internet, in newspapers and elsewhere.

Here's a sampling of some of them, originally published in the Washington Post:

(Warning: Remember, these are not real warnings. Just pretend.)

On an infant's bathtub: "Do not throw baby out with bath water."

On a roll of candy Life Savers: "Not for use as a flotation device."

On a piano: "Harmful or fatal if swallowed."

On a blender: "Not for use as an aquarium."

On a refrigerator: "Refrigerate after opening.

There are no comments - be the first to comment