You need to protect yourself and your company from those who, no matter what the risks, insist on not swimming between the flags. By Greg Crowther
Despite all the warnings to swim only in patrolled areas, there were 39 drownings at Australian beaches last summer. All but one occurred outside areas patrolled by lifesavers. And notwithstanding the broad awareness that smoking is a health hazard, a 1995 survey found that about one quarter of adults over 16 were smokers.
Such statistics tell us that a safety warning alone will not curb people’s behavior. When faced with well-publicised personal health and safety risks, some people elect not to take steps to avoid those risks.
Drawing on best international practice, it is possible to highlight effective ways of communicating safety warnings.
Safety communication as part of risk management
An effective approach to warnings places organisations in a better position to protect their bottom line. A formal product-warning strategy also helps guard a manufacturer, for example, from contravening Part VA of the Trade Practices Act and other product liability laws.
Such a strategy is useful for manufacturers and others because, as the Federal Court found in Barnes v. Glendale Chemical Products Pty Ltd, under the Trade Practices Act, if goods are sold under a business’s name, then that business is deemed to have manufactured the goods.
What Makes An Effective Warning?
Product liability laws in Australia require manufacturers to stand by the safety warnings and instructions they affix to their products. Manufacturers can be liable for “informational defects”.
The four essential ingredients of a warning message are:
- The warning must include an appropriate signal word (e.g. DANGER, WARNING, CAUTION) to alert consumers that a hazard exists.
- The warning must state the exact nature of the hazard.
- The warning must state what the consequences of the hazard may be.
- The warning must state how to avoid the hazard.
For example, a “No Diving” sign from the US displays the four ingredients of a warning message. The signal word is “danger”, the hazard is “shallow water”, the consequence is “you can be paralysed”, and “no diving” is how to avoid the hazard.
In the US and Australia, companies successful in the management of safety communication have adopted a strategic approach to the design, testing and monitoring of their product warnings.
To help increase their effectiveness, written safety warnings need to be reinforced using other communication methods or channels (such as graphic design and face-to-face contact in information presentations and education programs).
Managing the risk
Gathering information is the first step in auditing existing warnings or adopting a new warning communications plan. This means having a clear understanding of the environment in which a product is sold. This means asking the critical questions:
- Are there any risks or hazards associated with the product?
- Are these risks or hazards known or unknown to the product users?
- What are the statutory labelling requirements?
If action is required to develop or improve product warnings, including labelling, the next step is to develop specific warning protocols. The “safety warning protocols” help management to ensure that a clear and consistent approach to warnings is applied internally and with suppliers. These protocols are included in the company’s risk-management program and are used to guide the development of individual product warnings.
The design and testing of safety warnings requires feedback from consumers. A warnings expert would identify whether written warnings were being read and understood by typical consumers and whether verbal messages were being heard and understood. Such research helps fine-tune safety communication and, should the need arise, can be used to defend a manufacturer’s position regarding the adequacy of a safety warning.
Avoiding information overload
In looking to better manage safety warnings within a risk management framework, businesses need to be cautious not to overdo warnings.
Research shows that if a manufacturer warns users about all possible hazards, this can result in information overload, ultimately lessening the effect of legitimate warnings. By putting a warning on a product that doesn’t need a warning, the manufacturer may also be open to liability.
As the late US Chief Justice Warren Burger put it: “If you warn about everything, you warn about nothing.”
How not to
How not to recruit
Researchers at Strathclyde University in Glasgow spent two years looking at the city’s transition from manufacturing to a style-led service economy. According to a report in The Guardian, the key to employment is not what is in your CV but how you look. Advertisements for “attractive” and “tasty” recruits prompted researchers to coin the phrase “aesthetic labor”.
Some of their results:
- A shop assistant was told to leave her post at a cash register and go home and shave her legs. Customers, she was told, would have been put off.
- One designer outlet said they would never employ anyone with a dress size 16 the national average because it did not project the right image.
- Staff at one shop needed permission from a supervisor before having their hair cut. Only hairstyles cleared by management were acceptable.
- Employees of another outlet were told to check their appearance and grooming against a checklist before going on to the shop floor.
- One 29-year-old bar manager told researchers she would have to leave her post in a trendy city centre pub on her next birthday. She believed she had to move to the outskirts, then to bars out of town, as she got older.
Fortunately, most workforces have an endless supply of fashion models from which to choose.
How not to engage in trade negotiations
Picking winners is always difficult for any public servant, but few have been so poor at it as Michel Garretta, former head of the French blood service. Garretta walked out of negotiations with a Swiss firm to buy heat-treating technology because they would not take a piece of French technology in equal exchange. The Swiss technology is used to make potentially AIDS-infected blood safe.
When Garretta realised his mistake, he could not get enough of the safe blood, so he decided to reserve the treated blood for “virgin” haemophiliacs, thinking that, for others, further exposure could not do any additional harm. He did not alert possible victims to the decision, nor did his subordinate, Jean-Pierre Allain who had spent his life treating haemophiliacs go public with his complaints. As the London Review of Books observed: “If one relies on the bravery of functionaries one is usually disappointed.”
Not that the French were alone: Japan simply denied the existence of AIDS and refused to allow the heat-treated blood into the country. The Americans, meanwhile, rapidly developed multi-national corporations to sell the blood and cornered the market.
How not to use information technology
The prize for lane-changing on the information super-highway goes to a 55-year-old manager of a Victorian utility who began to annoy his secretary by continually coming out of his office and looking in his in-basket. Eventually, she asked him why he kept examining an empty tray. “My computer keeps telling me I have mail,” he replied.
How not to focus on what you do best
The prize for failure to develop core focus must go to NATO, which during the Kosovo conflict bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade because “they had the wrong map”. Needless to say, China was not impressed and an international incident was sparked. The US military’s euphemism for accurate bombing: “servicing the target” has been changed to: “servicing the target having worked out where it is first”. Further developments are awaited.
The Slithershanks File
The Slithershanks File is a selection of bedtime readings from esteemed management caricature Irradiated Slithershanks, whose intelligence is exceeded only by his charm, of which he has neither. His reading for this edition is from The Historical Genesis of Modern Business and Military Strategy, 1850-1950, by Keith Hoskin, Richard Macve and John Stone:
“Managerialism … is always about action at a distance, effected primarily through multiple forms of writing, and only secondarily through speech. It is grammatocentric: carried on via a constant stream of memos, directives, orders, budgets, accounts, evaluations, etc. …
“Thus managerialism institutes a certain way of constructing space/time relations. Its orientation to time is like that of accountability towards the future, a future it strives to know by drawing on the medium of objectively measured past performance. To this end it re-writes time. It is not just that clock-time replaced body-time, clock-time is then re-written (e.g. as the ‘machine-hour’) to produce a new quality of time-control and time-knowledge. Concerning space its reach is similarly extensive and intensive. By extension of the simple originating practices in administrative co-ordination managerialism can know and control the furthest reaches of organisational space, and actively construct new scales of organisational complexity and size (e.g. divisionalisation, matrix structures). … It is a kind of ‘Panopticism’. But specifically it is a grammatocentric panopticism.”