Product Safety

Don Boudreaux has a nice summary of the problems with a lot of product safety problems.

You write as if "safe" is an objectively determinable and unique fact, such as whether or not your newspaper's paid circulation exceeds 500,000 or whether or not your sister is pregnant.  But "safe" is not objective in this way.  Because no product is 100 percent certain never to cause even the slightest harm (or 100 percent certain to cause harm), the question "Is this product safe?" has no correct single answer.  It has correct answers as varied as the number of that product's potential users.  No product is "safe" or "unsafe" in the abstract.

Perhaps your tolerance for risk is higher than mine.  Perhaps the pleasure I get from using a product is less than yours.  If so, should I be permitted to prevent you from using that product because, for me, the product is insufficiently safe?  My evaluation of the product's safety is correct only for me, not for you.  And matters don't change if I'm a government official.


  1. Douglas2:

    I designed and made a needed product for a client. They knew what capabilities they wanted, I knew that with a lead-screw, a PWM-controlled DC motor and various other bits from Home Depot and the good local hardware store I could put together exactly what they wanted.

    Now that Mark 1 has been in place for 10 years and then retired, and Mark II has been in place a few years, I am absolutely amazed at the ways people manage to flip switches and turn knobs in ways that I could never imagine being done.

    I have noticed that since we were told that only extension-cords with 600V insulation were allowed in the workplace, things didn't work very well for a while in some offices after all of the cords with 300V insulation went away. But now it is all better because various members of the staff have raided their Christmas supplies and now we have a fine selection of 16 and 18 gauge white, brown, and green 2-wire extension cords in place of the nice 14-gauge three-wire air-conditioner cords that disappeared. Every so often someone comes through at night and removes them, but they are cheap to replace.

  2. nom de guerre:

    "matters don't change because i'm a government official"???

    in what alternate universe might THAT be? where do i sign up to go?

  3. Jim Collins:

    A company I used to work for had brainstorming sessions during the design and testing phase for new products. During these sessions we would figure out what the stupidest things that somebody could do with the product and what the result would be. Then the first several production units were expended in testing out these ideas. We had rigs that would make the Mythbusters proud. After a few units failed catastrophically and spectacuarly we actually bought the used side panels from a local hockey rink for protective shields. I'm quite sure that this process gave us a safer product and probably prevented several mishaps. It was a total suprise when our corporate attorney told us that we had to stop doing it. He was concerned about the notes of our brainstorming sessions being used against the company in a lawsuit. It was my understanding that if we disreguarded an idea as being too far off the wall and didn't test for it, then if some moron did it, we would be liable. It was determined that our liability would be less if we didn't worry about our product's safety beyond eliminating pinch points, stop switches and guards. He was proven right a few years later, when an operator removed all of the guards, disabled the stop switches and then lost four fingers. The first request from his lawyers was all of the documentation on the development of that product.

  4. Fred Z:

    I'm a 57 year old man who spends much of his summers on a Suzuki superbike - a crotch rocket.

    I approve of your sliding scale risk-reward safety analysis and declare my rides to be perfectly safe.

  5. Hunt Johnsen:

    I think my hang-gliders had a placard stating that they could be hazardous along with their tested G-loading, negative and positive. We don't placard our surf boats figuring there is no way to make them totally foolproof. After 20+ years in production, and despite few moving parts, someone is always figuring out a new way to screw them up.