OK. I think we may have gone too far. I just purchased, for a whole 50 cents, a little memo pad with a snazzy black and white cover. The cover folds over the top and closes with the help of a little magnet. It also has a lovely warning label. Now just how many ways can this pad of about 100 sheets of paper cause me or anyone injury?
Let’s see. If I should mistake it for something edible, begin to tear off sheets and slowly macerate them (now there’s a word I don’t get to use very often), I suppose that I could conceivably choke to death if I tried to swallow too much paper at one time.
If the pad is accidentally dropped on a smooth floor, it might be possible to step on it and slip and fall and break an arm. It might even happen that in the slip, a concussion could be achieved.
If the pad should fall into the hands of a little child, they most likely would eventually tear the little magnet off and eat it. Now that is the basis for this warning label. This is a real hazard. At least one child has died due to the ingestion of magnets and numerous children have required surgery.
Looking around my house, I found an ample supply of warnings. On my can of canned air for cleaning computer keyboards, one whole side is devoted to a variety of cautionary notes starting with “do not shake” and ending with “treat for frostbite if necessary.”
It seems that almost every electrical appliance or device carries a variety of warnings. The laptop I am using warns me that the base and palm rest can become hot. Then, I am told that it can result in injury to the skin. There is even a name for the damage – “toasted skin syndrome” – which is caused by using a laptop on one’s lap and exposing the upper thighs to extended heat. Good reason to not use it on bare legs or any other bare body parts.
The hair dryer has several warnings: “Danger – electrocution possible if used or dropped in tub.” Also this particular dryer has a special plug called a ground fault circuit interrupter that will stop the flow of electricity if it happens to start going through me because I am standing in a puddle of water. Having the electricity stop is a really excellent idea; otherwise, it might be the last hair drying I get to do, ever.
The warning on the plug says that I should test the plug before each use, using the test and reset buttons. Only problem is that it is embossed in black on the black plug, so it took a bit of squinting to make out what the warning was telling me to do.
Then there are the ubiquitous Proposition 65 warnings. This regulation, passed by voters in 1986, requires manufacturers and businesses to give notice to consumers whenever they have a chance to be exposed to toxic substances.
It is pretty much impossible to move through any public space without seeing this warning: “This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
In case you are curious, there are over 900 chemicals on the list, including such things as carbon monoxide, diazoaminobenzene, HC blue 1, isobutyl nitrite, nitrilotriacetic acid, and phenoxybenzamine hydrochloride. Well, I recognized one of those. In any case, consider yourself warned.
There are a number of warnings that will perhaps bring a smile. The Apple iPod Shuffle has had a prominent warning: “Do not eat iPod Shuffle.” That does seem pretty much like a no-brainer.
This one is more of a conundrum: “If you cannot read cautions and warnings, do not use this product.” How about this warning on a bottle of pills meant to be given to a dog: “Use care when operating a car.” Finally, we have: “May contain small parts,” on a Frisbee toy.
The number of warnings and cautionary notes seems to be expanding everywhere. I see two problems with this. As these warnings begin to appear in more and more places, how long before most of us tune them out? Or have we already?
The other problem is simply a part of our general culture. We like to sue people, so businesses and manufacturers all have to cover their liability by trying to imagine every possible misuse of items and warn us about them. I am not a lawyer, so I do not know if these warnings actually provide responsible or irresponsible businesses with any protection.
We probably need to consider just how effective these warnings are and whether we might try some other method of reducing the liability of honest and responsible businesses and manufacturers.
Kevin Wychopen is a semi-retired school counselor and weekly columnist for the Enterprise. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.