When I was growing up, I remember looking in my parents’ medicine cabinet, or on high garage shelves, and seeing cans and bottles with various warnings printed all over them.
Indoors there was rubbing alcohol, something called “witch hazel” (which always piqued my interest), peroxide and other intriguing substances.
Some said DANGER/POISON (usually with a skull and crossbones), or Toxic: Do Not Ingest. And almost all added in large letters: Keep Away from Children.
Outdoors there were cans of paint, turpentine, gasoline cans, and other items marked: WARNING: HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, Do Not Use Near Flames. Or, USE ONLY WITH ADEQUATE VENTILATION.
I liked to build models and do various arts and crafts projects as a kid. So I frequently made use of glues, liquid plastics and other products, all with similar “danger” and “flammable” labels: Don’t use indoors; Don’t breathe fumes. (They never warned it could make you high; just dead.)
In short, probably like all of you, I grew up being aware that there were plenty of things in the world (and around the house) that one had to use very carefully, and that reading labels was the most important thing to do first.
I think that lesson was a good one to learn as a kid. It set me in good stead to be a modern consumer — attentive to the warning inserts that come with drugs and other products and the “fine print” on contracts.
So I was surprised to hear a report on the radio the other day about efforts to take off the market a product used to strip wallpaper that had caused the death of several poorly trained workers due to inhalation in a closed room.
A reporter was asking a representative from the manufacturer why they continue to sell such a dangerous product. Their conversation went something like this:
The rep replied, “Our labeling is clear. The product should only be used with adequate ventilation; it’s important to open a window if using it indoors.”
The reporter pushed back: “A person can die in 30 minutes from inhaling this product in a closed room. How many people have to die from this product before you take it off the market?”
The rep replied: “It’s the only product on the market that works as quickly and as well, so it should continue to be sold. All a person has to do is read the label and follow the instructions.”
The reporter retorted: “But people don’t read labels! How are you going to make people read the label?”
The rep weakly answered: “I guess we can’t make people read the label. That’s just something people are supposed to do.”
Now I usually find myself on the side of reporters, even (or especially) when they are being aggressive. I don’t mind seeing interviewees squirm when they are trying to wiggle out of a situation for which they deserve to be nailed.
But I felt very differently about this interview. Shouldn’t the reporter be blaming either the remodeling company that apparently failed to train its staff, or the employees who ignored what they were told? Removing the product from the market would seem in this case to penalize the wrong party and disappoint many users who rely on it.
The reporter’s logic — that “people don’t read labels,” hence dangerous products should not be sold — could be applied to many, maybe even most, of the products we all use daily. What would our lives be like if every product that required a warning of some type were simply to become unavailable?
In our country’s past, there were many years when manufacturers put assembly line employees, and many consumers, at great risk without a thought to the consequences.
But over the last 50 years or so, America’s regulators on the federal and state levels have made our lives progressively safer by ending manufacturing practices harmful to workers, forbidding the importation of dangerous toys, changing the way playground equipment is made and installed, adding safety features to all cars — and requiring safety warnings on products that can be misused.
These efforts will continue to be important, as no doubt new risks will come to light that may need to be addressed through regulation.
But that doesn’t mean consumers and workers bear no responsibility for the proper use of a product. People should be expected to read and follow instructions, and not blithely ignore clearly stated warnings.
On the other hand, in a society where many different languages are spoken and where workers are often immigrants with a poor knowledge of English, we do need to be sure warning signs use universal symbols or are written in multiple languages. And companies need to be sure the people they hire understand these warnings.
The truth is, we will never be able to regulate all risk out of our lives. (And if we were to try, I think most of us would rebel at the resulting infantilization.)
There is a lot of room, however, between no risk and reasonable risk.