New ANSI Standard for Product Safety Information in Product Manuals, Instructions and Other Collateral Materials
Standards set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) have been used for more than a decade in the United States as the recommended format and layout of product safety information. Although not mandatory, courts have recognized these standards as the minimum benchmark for product manufacturers. Existing ANSI standards have addressed product safety signs and labels affixed to a product or its packaging but did not specifically cover the presentation of safety information in collateral materials such as product manuals and instructions.
Collateral materials may come in various forms, such as bound manuals, pamphlets, single sheets of paper, or electronic documents. Such materials differ from product signs and labels in that they tend to contain more information, address multiple hazards and provide more detailed safety messages. Recognizing that its existing standards could not necessarily be applied broadly to the wide array of collateral materials, ANSI published a new standard for collateral materials in October 2006. The goal of this standard, ANSI Z535.6, is to provide a common design direction for product safety information in collateral materials.
The New ANSI Standard
ANSI Z535.6 attempts to incorporate elements of other Z535-series standards into its approach. Thus, it contemplates the use of the safety alert symbol (an equilateral triangle surrounding an exclamation mark) to indicate a potential personal injury hazard, and the signal words of “DANGER,” “WARNING,” “CAUTION,” or “NOTICE” to designate the level of seriousness of potential personal injury or property damage. As with other ANSI standards, the goal of safety messages in collateral materials should be to describe the nature of a hazard, the consequences of not avoiding the hazard and the method to avoid the hazard. The new standard recognizes that collateral materials may contain four different types of safety messages – (1) supplemental directives, (2) grouped safety messages, (3) section safety messages and (4) embedded safety messages – and provides directives and recommendations regarding each.
1) Supplemental Directives
Supplemental directives do not address specific hazards. Rather, ANSI Z535.6 categorizes supplemental directives as messages about other safety messages. The information in a supplemental directive steers a user to safety information either in the collateral material itself or another location, makes a user aware of safety information, or highlights consequences that may be associated with the failure to observe safety information. A typical example of a supplemental directive is, “Read all instructions before use to avoid injury.”
The standard suggests that, in most instances, the proper location of a supplemental directive is near the beginning of a document or before the information to which it refers. Therefore, the standard suggests placement of a supplemental directive on the first page of a multipage document, at the top of a single document, or at the beginning of a group of safety messages. Unless the supplemental directive refers the user to a specific safety message that incorporates a signal word (such as “DANGER” or “WARNING”), the supplemental directive itself should not contain a signal word.
2) Grouped Safety Messages
Grouped safety messages allow users to access safety information in a single location. Although collectively the grouped messages should identify the hazards, indicate how to avoid the hazards and advise of the probable consequences of not avoiding the hazards, each message within the group need not necessarily address all of these elements. For instance, if electric shock would result from not observing each safety message within the group, that consequence may be addressed in a supplemental directive preceding the grouped safety messages (e.g., “Failure to read these warnings can result in electric shock.”).
The standard suggests the preferred location of a grouped safety message is either in a separate document or prior to any procedural information to which the safety messages apply. In addition, the standard instructs that messages unrelated to safety should not be placed among grouped safety messages. Thus, in the case of an instruction manual that pertains to the assembly of a toy, the grouped safety messages would appear prior to, and separate and apart from, the assembly information. If that instruction manual has a table of contents, the standard recommends that the section regarding grouped safety messages be listed there.
Group safety messages can be organized in several ways, including numbered lists, bulleted lists and separate paragraphs. The standard encourages the use of subsections and subheadings if the information includes a large number of messages and multiple topics. Thus, it is probably not sufficient for product manufacturers to list safety messages in haphazard fashion. In order to properly organize their group safety messages, manufacturers should carefully consider the type of product involved and the types of hazards associated with both the entire product and individuals components of the product.
3) Section Safety Messages
Section safety messages apply to entire sections or subsections within a document and typically appear at the beginning of the applicable section. Unlike grouped safety messages, section safety messages tend to appear in close proximity of nonsafety information in a document. Thus, the layout of a section safety message is very important, as are the use of signal words and the safety alert symbol to highlight the safety information to the user.
4) Embedded Safety Messages
More particularized than section safety messages, embedded safety messages apply to a specific part of a section, such as a single sentence or procedure. Unlike group safety messages, embedded safety messages are intended to be integrated with the nonsafety message. Product manufacturers must be especially vigilant when considering the use of these types of messages. In the example of the toy instruction manual, there may be different methods to assemble the toy for various age levels. In that instance, safety messages embedded in a particular portion of the manual that might be skipped over should be embedded elsewhere if the message is equally applicable to an alternate method of assembly. The standard suggests that the degree to which an embedded safety message should be differentiated from the nonsafety portion of the text may depend on whether the safety message is also contained in a grouped or section safety message.
ANSI Z535.6 provides product manufacturers with several methods by which to convey warnings that will satisfy the duty to warn consumers of potential hazards. Given the options available to them, manufacturers would be prudent to utilize a combination of supplemental directives, grouped messages, section messages and embedded messages for collateral materials – especially in instances where a number of potential hazards exist or the product is complex.
Manufacturers should be cognizant of the length and layout of their collateral materials and strive to include adequate safety warnings without undue repetition, which may actually cause a user to disregard warnings. Manufacturers should also be aware of the safety signs and labels currently on their products and packaging and correlate the collateral materials appropriately. In light of the new standard, courts may pay increased attention to the warnings contained in collateral materials to determine whether a manufacturer has complied with its duty to warn consumers of potential hazards. Thus, those manufacturers who previously designed collateral materials using other ANSI standards should consider updating those materials to ensure that they comply with the new standard.