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By Jack Ganssle

Warning Labels

Published 9/15/2008

We watched Governor Palin's acceptance speech from the ER.

It started out as an atypically relaxed evening. I decided to try out a new, very aggressive, bandsaw blade meant for cutting green logs into circular blanks ready to be mounted on the lathe.

Of course the blade bit my finger.

The machine wasn't turned on; a moment of carelessness when adjusting the saw yielded an ugly wound that required just a bit of medical attention.

The machine is plastered with warning labels. The operator is advised to keep hands away from a moving blade, to unplug before adjusting it (though that means the light won't be powered), to wear a dust mask, hearing and eye protectors. There are so many warnings I have never read them all.

Last week I bought a $0.99 six foot extension cord. Three warning labels were attached. On an extension cord!

Recently I was working on an embedded app, a scientific data collection instrument. After power-on the user has to acknowledge five pages of warnings before it gets to a useful operating mode. Of course the folks just mindlessly pressed the "OK" button five times without even looking at the screen.

All of my tool manuals start with pages of disclaimers and safety information. Those that come with cars have become almost useless as they're so sprinkled with warnings it's hard to extract the important stuff, like tire pressure, location of the ever-harder-to-find jack, etc. So we don't read the instructions and possibly create a more hazardous situation as a result.

Well-intentioned warnings seem utterly ineffective. When was the last time you saw a smoker pondering the Surgeon General's dire advice found on billions of packages of cigarettes?

The hundreds of words of wisdom on my bandsaw didn't counteract a moment of inattention.

Too many warnings are the same as none.

Warning messages today are just disclaimers to limit a manufacturer's liability. As such, their function is to help the vendor, not the customer.

I fully expect that within a few years that $0.99 extension cord will be invisible except for the two ends. The rest will be buried underneath six feet of colorful warnings.