The objective of product safety is to achieve a safe product. That may seem like a basic concept, but it is a continuing challenge to establish that positive approach to making products safer rather than the negative approach of trying to avoid product liability claims.
Due to the virtually universal absence of product safety as a component of the education of product designers and engineers, they enter the workforce with blank pages in the Safety chapter of their skills book. That void is furthered by the absence of product safety education in most on-the-job introductory training given by employers, although there is often a generous helping of OSHA-related personnel safety training.
The messages that often get written on those blank pages unfortunately come from the sensational press coverage of unusual product liability lawsuits. The stories range from hilarious to terrifying, but the messages are consistent: No matter how good your product is, some fool will get hurt using it and be awarded millions to compensate for his stupidity. Those negative messages tend to engender a cynical attitude toward safety—a belief that the addition of a safety feature or the avoidance of a hazard is done mainly to provide the lawyers with a better defense.
Most products are safe, but that is usually the result of safety reviews that are often completed late in the design process by product safety or risk management specialists. Yes, those reviews can cause an unsafe product to be dropped, but more often they result in some redesign or the addition of some sort of a guard, warning tag, or instruction. Each of these items costs money and causes some delay in the process, but more importantly, they are not integrated into the function of the product and, consequently, are very seldom the best way to achieve the desired result. These minor changes are merely a way to handle the situation given the time and cost constraints at that stage in the process. However, when safety is considered early in the design process, it is achievable at little or no increase in cost or decrease in function.
A good safety process begins with gaining knowledge and understanding of who the users will be and how they are likely to use and misuse the product. This will result in not only a safer product, but also a more useful and desirable product. There is an established safety hierarchy applicable to products: If a product can practically be made safer, it must be made safer. If the product cannot practically be made safer, but a guard is practical, then a guard must be provided to protect users from hazards. If any hazards remain after these fi rst two considerations have been exhausted, then adequate warnings are required. If these criteria were widely known and used to judge products while they were being designed and tested, inherently safer products would come out of the design process.
Safety must be addressed as early in the design phase as possible. It gets more and more diffi cult—and expensive—to try to address safety as the design becomes solidifi ed. Safe products will be better and good products will be safer if the developers of the products approach their work with a basic knowledge of the precepts of safety and a positive attitude toward their application.
Successful application of a good safety program not only results in a safe product, it also results in the best position for the company regarding product liability lawsuits. The primary benefi t is that the product is safe, or certainly safer, and where there is no injury, there is no liability. Having no liability is the only ironclad means of avoiding a liability lawsuit.
If some injury does occur and the company gets involved in a lawsuit, its lawyers will be defending a product that has a solid history of safety in its development. There will be no potentially embarrassing questions or observations from late-stage design reviews or testing. They will not need to be concerned about hired-gun experts for the plaintiff pointing out safety gaps that were missed, rationalized to be “acceptably safe,” or papered over at the last minute by warning labels or instructions because there was no time to do more.
Real product safety is practically and economically attainable by taking a positive approach and integrating safety into the design process for the purpose of designing a safe product.
About the Author
Marty Walsh is director, product safety, for BSH Home Appliances Corp. He is a registered professional engineer in California, U.S., and has been involved in various technical and safety aspects of the appliance business for more than 30 years. If you wish to contact Walsh, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.