Warnings Expert Witness: Samples of Effective Product Warnings

    In the last articles: How to Design a Product Warning and How Best to Communicate a Product Warning for The Expert Institute, I listed the major components found in most warnings. I also made several suggestions that should help improve a warning’s conspicuousness and make it more likely to gain the attention of the product’s user at the time of use (typically included in the legal standards for warnings which result in the jury instructions used in many states). The following is an example of a warning that I have designed and tested for use in swimming pools. It was for either above or in ground pools, which have shallow water as a potential hazardous condition for diving. Over 800 divers into shallow water are rendered paralyzed or worse annually in the United States.

    Warnings Expert Witness - Warning labelNote that the warning uses bold print with uppercase letters for the signal word “DANGER.”. This was chosen because the hazard “Shallow water” can result in IMMEDIATE AND LIFE THREATENING INJURIES.  The font size of the letters is sufficient to allow viewing from several feet away from the pool. Most importantly, it can be seen prior to an individual’s approach to a potentially hazardous condition (i.e., diving into shallow waters). There are contrasting colors used for the signal word (red, white and black). These are consistent with those recommended by the latest warning standards of the American National Standards Institute (See ANSI Z535) to be associated with the signal word, Danger.

    Further, there is a pictogram, also with contrasting colors, that may be helpful for those who cannot read English. It is also for those who might need a pictorial reinforcement to the verbal language in the warning or for those whose English literacy is not up to par. It should be noted that I tested this pictogram on an audience of several hundred swimmers and over 90% of them understood its meaning. This is consistent with the testing standard recommended by ANSI for testing the effectiveness of pictograms. Additionally, there is ample white space present in this warning to enhance the readability as well as its content’s conspicuousness.

    Warnings Expert Witness product warningsThe next example is a warning I designed for a soft drink manufacturer to alert consumers of the pressurized cap hazardous condition. This may cause injury to people, typically to their eyes, when a bottle is opened. This warning also uses a signal word “WARNING” in bold, uppercase letters with contrasting colors (green and white). In addition, it is preceded by a well-known, previously tested icon (the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Safety Alert Symbol) to improve the warning’s conspicuousness.

    For larger bottles (2 liters), this warning is actually repeated in two prominent locations. This increases the likelihood of drawing consumers’ attention at the time of use. “WARNING” was chosen as the signal word. This is because while the consequences can be serious (e.g., loss of an eye). Although, unlike diving into shallow water in a pool where the danger is immediate, in the “exploding bottle cap,” the hazard is not necessarily immediate. In fact, most pressurized bottle caps do NOT explode and injure the user’s eye. Note in this warning that the consequence is listed as possible eye injury, the hazard is the “pressurized contents”and the instructional component urges users to point the bottle away from people when opening it.

    The colors associated with the signal word “WARNING” are typically orange, white and black. However, in this case we consulted the ANSI standard whose rule called mostly for contrasting colors if the original colors weren’t practical. Which they weren’t for some of the products, such as Orange Crush. The use of orange in their marketing of the bottle could have obscured the warning label;  in fact, our testing showed that to be the case.

    Warnings Expert Witness product label designThe final example is a warning I designed for a ladder. It informed ladder users about the most important hazardous condition they might face during the time of use. This included “racking” or moving/jumping the ladder either forward, backward or sideways while still standing on the ladder. This warning also uses the signal word “DANGER” in the appropriate colors because the hazard can be immediate and result in very serious injuries. It is written both in English and Spanish because the product users in the state spoke both languages.

    The hazard was identified with only two words, “Stability Hazard”. The consequences of serious injury or death were identified. An instructional component was also included to choose the right ladder for the intended use. This is to minimize the perceived need for “racking” and the stability hazard. The warning was placed on the third step of a four step ladder since the third step was at eye level and not intended for use by ladder users.  In fact, our testing program revealed that most potential ladder users noticed and understood the ladder warning.

    Related Article: How Best to Communicate a Product Warning

    These are just three examples of warnings that I have designed for popular consumer products where our research showed that in absence of the warnings. The consumers would in all likelihood not been aware of the hidden hazards referenced in the three warnings. I encourage folks who are considering the design and implementation of any products warnings to conform with the ANSI Z535 Warnings Code. Or even the appropriate code for a specific products, if it is available. In addition, they should follow the rules for effective construction of warnings. I have written about these in my last two articles for The Expert Institute. My recommendations were derived from often decades of solid research studies predicting how warnings can be more effective.


    Warnings Expert WitnessThis highly qualified warning label expert witness is the founder and CEO of the nation’s largest designer and evaluator of warnings and safety communications. He has over 35 years of experience in litigation research, warning label research & design, and product & warning label testing. His clients include Fortune 500 companies, as well as educational and governmental organizations. He is the author of several books and scholarly articles that address the efficacy of warnings and organizational communication. He has testified as a warning label expert witness both in state and federal courts throughout the U.S.

    Expert’s Bio:
    Location: New York
    Ph.D., Organizational Communications / Industrial Psychology / Safety Communications, Purdue University
    Lecturer, routinely lectures throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, and over 25 other countries
    Author, 10 books and over 500  articles / papers on organizational and safety communications
    Current, Chairman and Group Coordinator, Expert Witness Company
    Current, Founder and CEO of the nation’s largest designer and evaluator of warnings and safety communications

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