New Standard Helps Manufacturers Meet Duty to Warn in Product Manuals

Oct. 16, 2008
The ANSI Z535-6 standard is a significant step forward in helping manufacturers address their legal duty to warn and instruct.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has adopted a new standard that provides much-needed guidance to manufacturers for meeting their "duty to warn" for the content of product and safety manuals.

Manufacturers are held to a two-prong "legal duty to warn." First, they must reasonably warn of the hazards associated with their products. This was already addressed by existing ANSI guidelines for product safety labels. Second, they must instruct users in the safe use of the product. As part of this second duty, a manufacturer must provide the information necessary for the consumer to use the product in a reasonably foreseeable and safe manner. The new ANSI standard primarily addresses this second duty.

The new standard organizes product manual safety messages into four categories: (1) supplemental directives; (2) group safety messages; (3) section safety messages; and (4) embedded safety messages. It also provides guidelines for the purpose, content, format and location of each category of safety message:

  1. Supplemental Directives. These are general messages usually found in the front of a manual referring to other safety messages. An example would be an instruction to "read all instructions before use to avoid injury."
  2. Group Safety Messages. These are collected in a section devoted to safety, usually the safety chapter.
  3. Section Safety Messages. These apply to a particular topic or chapter and usually appear at the beginning of the section to which they apply. For example, general maintenance or repair instructions would be placed in the beginning of the chapter devoted to those topics.
  4. Embedded Safety Messages. These apply to a particular paragraph, section or procedure, and should fit within the logical flow of the procedure/step being discussed. As a user reads the particular procedure within a chapter, he or she will be provided with the respective safety warnings where they specifically apply.

The new ANSI standard also provides specific rules for each category of safety information. It goes so far as to define each category, so that a manual writer will know exactly where in the manual a safety instruction must go. Then definitions are provided so as to provide the framework for the substance of the instruction or warning.

Formatting issues are also addressed in detail, including those related to type manipulations (e.g., bold, italics, type size, etc.) and borders. Even the location of various warnings is addressed in the new standard. Examples are provided that illustrate how safety information is to be conveyed within the manual. This is guidance which was sorely lacking prior to the ANSI standard.

The new standard adopts a number of the principles used in the ANSI guidelines for labels, particularly the use of safety alert symbols and signal words. Signal words call attention to a safety message and, in doing so, designate a degree of or level of hazard seriousness. The signal words in the ANSI standards are "DANGER", "WARNING", and "CAUTION." A safety alert symbol is composed of a triangle surrounding an exclamation mark. It is intended to indicate a potential personal injury hazard; it is not to be used to alert persons of risks limited to property damage only. As with safety labels, safety manuals should continue to attempt to identify hazards, indicate how to avoid those hazards, and advise of the probable consequences of not avoiding the hazards.

The standard distinguishes personal safety from property damage situations. Safety alert symbols are never to be used in property damage only situations. The standard recommends the use of the signal word "NOTICE" or alternatively the word "CAUTION" without any safety alert symbol. At no time should property damage instructions be intermixed with personal safety instructions.

The ANSI Z535-6 standard is a significant step forward in helping manufacturers address their legal duty to warn and instruct. Properly written, manuals will instruct users on how to safely use the company's products and avoid harm. Accidents will be avoided, leading to reduced claims and loss. Equally as important, product safety and instruction manuals represent the face of the company. They should be the key in the defense of any failure to warn claim. The new ANSI standard provides writers with the guidance they need to meet their legal responsibilities on how to warn and instruct the users of their products.

Cal R. Burnton is a partner and product liability defense litigator with Wildman Harrold (Chicago).

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