Edited by Lawrence Kren
The methodical way to approach product safety is with a formal hazard analysis. A hazard analysis examines product features and tries to anticipate any potential hazards that might result from them.
It can be illustrative to review real-world cases and draw lessons from the results. Here are a few situations I've encountered:
A client identified a market for photo albums to be used by an aging population who suffered from arthritis or other conditions that interfered with their ability to grip objects. The problem with existing photo albums was with the nuts and extenders that held their pages in place. Their diameters were too small for older people to grip comfortably.
The idea was to increase the gripping diameter. But a hazard analysis turned up a potential problem with infants. A crawling child could find a dropped nut or extender, put it in their mouth and choke.
Armed with this information, the manufacturer changed the design to incorporate sufficiently large holes in the nuts and extenders. The holes would give a child enough air to keep it from choking until it got the attention of an adult. The product has now been on the market for eight years and there have been no reported complaints about choking.
Another hazard analysis took place on packed storm doors after someone was seriously injured while handling them. The top half of the storm doors had an open area for a glass or screen window. The doors were packed 25 to a package, and the windows shipped separately.
When these doors went overseas, they were stacked into the hold of a ship to a height of over 20 ft. In one instance, a worker was walking on top of the stack of doors. He broke through the cardboard and fell the full 20 ft, suffering serious injuries.
The hazard was in how the doors were stacked. All their window spaces lined up. The obvious solution was to alternate the doors so the longest fall would be an inch or two, the thickness of a single door.
Juries have been known to take a dim view of companies that don't think about hazards. One example is of a serious accident and injury involving a truck-mounted concrete pump. The operator was knocked off the pump and suffered a broken back. He will be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
This injury case went to court. After the case concluded, the judge let the attorneys interview the jury to find out what they thought were the critical issues.
One jurist was an engineering manager for a medical-device manufacturer. His comments were revealing.
He brought up my testimony specifically. I had pointed out that the defendant never performed any kind of a hazard analysis on this very dangerous product. That, said the engineering manager, instantly decided his vote.
He continued that a product from his company would not ship until it had undergone a detailed hazard analysis. He further opined that any company seeing fit to sell a product without first conducting a hazard analysis was totally irresponsible, bordering on criminal.
Many people hold similar opinions, and the number is growing. This is why manufacturers must always document steps they've taken to look for inherent safety problems. And the process must be more than what a jury would consider just a token effort. Manufacturers must try to envision how the product will be used and misused, stored, shipped, and disposed of.
Lanny Berke is a registered professional engineer and a Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at firstname.lastname@example.org.