Why product warnings backfire

This weekend I bought a Black & Decker cordless screwdriver for $18.99. It’s an underpowered little gadget that runs on batteries, but it’s just right for the job I had, driving some brass screws into pilot holes without stripping them. And it came with a little something extra: 700 square inches of instructions and warnings.

This may be the best possible illustration of how writing can be an irrelevant assault rather than actual communication. If you wanted to hurt yourself with this little doodad, which weighs less than a pound, is encased in hard plastic, and drives screws with the awesome power of four included AA alkaline batteries, you’d have to stab yourself in the eye with it, or have somebody slam it into your toes with a sledgehammer. It may be the safest power tool I’ve ever used.

There are two convenient buttons on this sucker — forward and backward — and one toggle, which is clearly labeled for powered vs. unpowered use. Anyone over the age of six could figure it out on their own, and just in case you can’t, there is a website featuring online chat and a toll-free number. But there are lawyers. And as a result, there are instructions and warnings, some of which I’ve reproduced below. You can easily distinguish my commentary since it’s the only part not in bold or italic or bulleted.

General Safety Rules

⚠️WARNING: Read all safety warnings and all instructions. Failure to follow the warnings and instructions may result in electric shock, fire and/or serious injury.

SAVE ALL WARNINGS AND INSTRUCTIONS FOR FUTURE REFERENCE

About the only way you could get an electric shock with this thing is to stand in a pool of water and stick it in a power outlet. And it’s 2018. Who saves instructions and warnings when everything is on the web? But this must be important, since it’s in bold and italic with warning symbols on it.

The term “power tool” in the warnings refers to your mains-operated (corded) power tool or battery-operated (cordless) power took

1) WORK AREA SAFETY

a) Keep work area clean and well lit. Cluttered or dark areas invite accidents.
b) Do not operate power tools in explosive atmospheres, such as in the presence of flammable liquids, gases or dust. Power tools create sparks which may ignite the dust or fumes.
c) Keep children and bystanders away while operating a power tool. Distractions can cause you to lose control.

If I promise not to sue, will you let me work in a smelly, dark, disorganized, space with my kids helping? Frankly, I lost control long ago, or I would have figured out a cheaper way to drive these screws.

2) ELECTRICAL SAFETY

a) Power tool plugs must match the outlet. Never modify the plug in any way. Do not use any adapter plugs with earthed (grounded) power tools. Unmodified plugs and matching outlets will reduce risk of electric shock.
b) Avoid body contact with earthed or grounded surfaces such as pipes, radiators, ranges and refrigerators. There is an increased risk of electric shock if your body is earthed or grounded.
c) Do not expose power tools to rain or wet conditions. Water entering a power tool will increase the risk of electric shock.
d) Do not abuse the cord. Never use the cord for carrying, pulling or unplugging the power tool. Keep cord away from heat, oil, sharp edges or moving parts. Damaged or entangled cords increase the risk of electric shock
e) When operating a power tool outdoors, use an extension cord suitable for out-door use. Use of a cord suitable for outdoor use reduces the risk of electric shock.
f) If operating a power tool in a damp location is unavoidable, use a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protected supply. Use of a GFCI reduces the risk of electric shock.

Hello, it has no cord! I put my tongue directly on the batteries and got a gentle 6-volt tingle. If you lined up every appliance I own in order of danger from electrical shock, this one would be last in line.

3) PERSONAL SAFETY
a) Stay alert, watch what you are doing and use common sense when operating a power tool. Do not use a power tool while you are tired or under the influence of drugs, alcohol or medication. A moment of inattention while operating power tools may result in serious personal injury.
b) Use personal protective equipment. Always wear eye protection. Protective equipment such as dust mask, nonskid safety shoes, hard hat, or hearing protection used for appropriate conditions will reduce personal injuries.
c) Prevent unintentional starting. Ensure the switch is in the off position before connecting to power source and/ or battery pack, picking up or carrying the tool. Carrying power tools with your finger on the switch or energizing power tools that have the switch on invites accidents.
d) Remove any adjusting key or wrench before turning the power tool on. A wrench or a key left attached to a rotating part of the power tool may result in personal injury.
e) Do not overreach. Keep proper footing and balance at all times. This enables better control of the power tool in unexpected situations.
f) Dress properly. Do not wear loose clothing or jewelry. Keep your hair, clothing and gloves away from moving parts. Loose clothes, jewelry or long hair can be caught in moving parts.
g) If devices are provided for the connection of dust extraction and collection facilities, ensure these are connected and properly used. Use of dust collection can reduce dust-related hazards.

It’s a screwdriver. You couldn’t hurt yourself with it if you used it on an extension ladder, while on LSD, wearing a wedding gown. There is no need for safety goggles or dust masks unless you are so clumsy you tend to drop screws into your eyes or mouth, or mistake them for raisins and eat them.

4) POWER TOOL USE AND CARE
a) Do not force the power tool. Use the correct power tool for your application. The correct power tool will do the job better and safer at the rate for which it was designed.
b) Do not use the power tool if the switch does not turn it on and off. Any power tool that cannot be controlled with the switch is dangerous and must be repaired.
c) Disconnect the plug from the power source and/or the battery pack from the power tool before making any adjustments, changing accessories, or storing power tools. Such preventive safely measures reduce the risk of starting the power tool accidentally.
d) Store idle power tools out of the reach of children and do not allow persons unfamiliar with the power tool or these instructions to operate the power tool. Power tools are dangerous in the hands of untrained users.
e) Maintain power tools. Check for misalignment or binding of moving parts, break-age of parts and any other condition that may affect the power tool’s operation. If damaged, have the power tool repaired before use. Many accidents are caused by poorly maintained power tools.
f) Keep cutting tools sharp and clean. Properly maintained cutting tools with sharp cut-ting edges are less likely to bind and are easier to control.
g) Use the power tool, accessories and tool bits, etc. in accordance with these instructions, taking into account the working conditions and the work to be performed. Use of the power tool for operations different from those intended could result in a hazardous situation.

I will use this screwdriver to drive screws. There are no adjustments. There is nothing to sharpen or maintain. You put the little Phillips bit thingy into the front end of it and you push the button. I promise not to use it to brush my teeth or perform surgery.

5) BATTERY TOOL USE AND CARE
a) Recharge only with the charger specified by the manufacturer. A charger that is suitable for one type of battery pack may create a risk of fire when used with another battery pack. 
b) Use power tools only with specifically designated battery packs. Use of any other battery packs may create a risk of injury and fire.
c) When battery pack is not in use, keep it away from other metal objects like paper clips, coins, keys, nails, screws, or other small metal objects that can make a connection from one terminal to another. Shorting the battery terminals together may cause burns or a fire.
d) Under abusive conditions, liquid may be ejected from the battery, avoid contact. If contact accidentally occurs, flush with water. If liquid contacts eyes, additionally seek medical help. Liquid ejected from the battery may cause irritation or burns.

You can’t recharge the batteries. They’re AA. You don’t need an electrician’s license to put them into the little battery slots.

6) SERVICE
a) Have your power tool serviced by a qualified repair person using only identical replacement parts. This will ensure that the safety of the power tool is maintained.

It’s a $20 item. If it stops working, I’ll buy a new one.

SPECIFIC SAFETY RULES

  • Hold power tool by insulated gripping surfaces, when performing an operation where the fastener may contact hidden wiring. Fasteners contacting a “live” wire may make exposed metal parts of the power tool live” and could give the operator an electric shock.
  • Avoid body contact with grounded surfaces such as pipes, radiators, ranges and refrigerators. There is an increased risk of electric shock it your body is grounded.

Why are your most general safety rules called “specific?”

⚠️WARNING: Some dust created by power sanding, sawing, grinding, drilling, and other construction activities contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. Some examples of these chemicals are:

  • lead from lead-based paints,
  • crystalline silica from bricks and cement and other masonry products, and
  • arsenic and chromium from chemically-treated lumber.

Your risk from these exposures varies, depending on how often you do this type of work. To reduce your exposure to these chemicals: work in a well ventilated area, and work with approved safety equipment, such as those dust masks that are specially designed to filter out microscopic particles.

Screwdrivers don’t make dust.

⚠️Fire or burn hazard. Batteries can explode or leak, and can cause Injury or fire. To reduce this risk:

  • Carefully follow all instructions and warnings on the battery label and package.
  • Always insert batteries correctly with regard to polarity ET and -), marked on the battery and the equipment.
  • Do not short battery terminals.
  • Do not recharge.
  • Do not mix old and new batteries. Replace all of them at the same time with new batteries of the same brand and type.
  • Remove dead batteries immediately and dispose of per local codes.
  • Do not dispose of batteries in fire.
  • Keep batteries out of reach of children.
  • Remove batteries if the device will not be used for several months.

Transporting batteries can possibly cause fires if the battery terminals inadvertently come in contact with conductive materials such as keys, coins, hand tools and the like. The US Department of Transportation Hazardous Material Regulations (HMR) prohibits transporting batteries in commerce or on airplanes (i.e. packed in suitcases and canyon luggage) UNLESS they are properly protected from short circuits. So when transporting individual batteries, make sure that the battery terminals are protected and well insulated from materials that could contact them and cause a short circuit. NOTE: Batteries should not be put in checked baggage.

You needed nine bullets and a paragraph to tell me how to take care of AA batteries? And you think I’m going to bring down an airplane with them?

When you shout everything, no one pays attention to anything

This screwdriver has no safety risk. It doesn’t need 700 square inches of bold and italic type in English, Spanish, and French.

Maybe you make a product that actually does need warnings, like a blowtorch or a wind turbine or Roundup pesticide. If so, perhaps you should spend your time warning people about the most important and common risks.

Extended and pointless warning like this make only lawyers happy. And I’m certain they don’t work. If you sell circular saws and someone uses one to slice through a power line and gets electrocuted, will the existence of 100 pointless warnings make the difference in whether the suit goes forward?

If your lawyers insist you put these warnings on your product, here’s what to do. Put the top three useful, important instructions at the top in 24-point type. Put the rest in 8 point type underneath where we can safely ignore it. Or just put a URL on the package and put the pointless warnings on a web site.

One more thing. I’m not a lawyer. If you follow my instructions here and get yourself sued, that’s your problem. Consider yourself warned.

11 responses to “Why product warnings backfire

  1. Please apply the same reasoning to TSA passenger procedures (and we’ll all move through airport boarding lines at at least twice the speed with much less friction and angst.) 🙂 Fee to be negotiated 🙂 🙂

    Ironically, when I read the warnings of much more (seemingly) harmful devices (like my motorcycle manual, for example), the language is much more specific and realistic, too. And, MUCH briefer percentage of pages-wise. Maybe it’s the difference in product price points (that results in the reuse of much boiler plate documentation for this drill.)

  2. To me this manual reads like they are trying to generate a single set of warnings they can reuse on most power tools in order to save a few dollars (cents?) per item.

    Capitalism showing its ugly head.

  3. I did try using this thing on an extension ladder, while on LSD, wearing a wedding gown, at 30,000 feet DURING A SHARKNADO!! And it still didn’t bring the plane down. But recharging it by tossing it into a neighborhood electrical substation did lead to some nasty incineration marks. The instructions never said not to do that…

  4. “I put my tongue directly on the batteries and got a gentle 6-volt tingle.” That’s why they have to write these warnings…

  5. Please be VERY careful. I worry about you when you are out of my sight.
    I remember when you were 5 and had to cross a street to get to kindergarten.
    Big sigh, Mother

  6. As a lawyer, I must say that I’m appalled. The warning does not say “This device may not be used as a flotation device.”

  7. While it would be nice if the warnings could be written in , “This is a screwdriver. If you use it for any other purpose the driving or removing screws, you are a DUMBASS. If you are a DUMBASS, you will not be alllowed to sue us.

    The product’s exquisite design of the controls makes operation so easy a 2 year old can use it. We know this because we gave it 100 of them. Only one of those couldn’t make it work without a 5-second tutorial, and he was from Arkansas in any case. If you aren’t as capable as a 2 year old human child, see the 5-second tutorial at http://www.blackanddecker.com/screwdriver/dumbass-tutorial-video.

    Enjoy your product. And if you are dumbass, please refrain from breeding.”

    Alas, greedy people and the attorneys who seek to profit from said greed, exist.

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