In My Opinion

Gary Sloan, Ph.D.

Position: Warning labels should appear on garments that are highly flammable.

I was retained in a case where a woman was badly burned as a consequence of her cotton flannel nightgown catching on fire. Many arguments were raised as to why a warning should not appear on such a garment. These arguments are presented below followed by my response.

My opinions follow from the basic tenet that if an accident can be anticipated, then reasonable precautions should be taken to reduce both the likelihood of its occurrence and the severity of its negative consequences. Since consumers may elect not to read or to comply with warnings and safety information, they should not be viewed as a substitute for safety precautions taken in the design and fabrication of a product. Product warnings should be considered only if residual risk remains following attempts to eliminate the hazard through design and choice of materials.

Product Safety Information

According to the Final Report of the National Commission of Product Safety (1970): "Risks of bodily harm to users are not unreasonable when consumers know that risks exist, can appraise their probability and severity, know how to cope with them, and voluntarily accept them to get benefits that could not be obtained in less risky ways." It follows that risks of bodily harm to users may be unreasonable when consumers do not know that risks exist, cannot appraise their probability and severity, do not know how to cope with them, and do not voluntarily accept them to get benefits that could be obtained in less risky ways.

With regard to cotton flannel garments:

  • Do consumers know that such garments are highly flammable?
  • Would consumers select cotton flannel garments if they knew how flammable they were and could select garments (style x fabric) that were less flammable?
  • Do product users know what to do to minimize bodily harm if their garment ignites?

In my opinion, if the answer to each of the above questions is "yes," then there would be little need to provide warnings or safety information on cotton flannel garments. However, if there is a basis to believe that consumers either do not appreciate that cotton flannel is highly flammable, or know the appropriate behavior should the garment catch fire, then such safety information should be provided. I believe people have the right to information that can impact upon their safety and well-being.

Compliance

Compliance relates to how persuasive a message is in eliciting the behavior desired by its source. In my opinion, warnings and safety information should be provided even if it can be anticipated that many consumers will elect not to read or to comply with such information. Warnings and safety information are provided to afford consumers the opportunity to comply. If consumers know that cotton flannel is highly flammable and know what to do if the garment catches on fire, then they voluntarily assume the risks associated with use of that product. In my opinion, warnings and safety information provide consumers not only with an opportunity to comply, but also with an opportunity for the voluntary assumption of risk.

Warning Labels on Clothing

Various reasons have been advanced for why it is unnecessary to use warning labels on clothing.

Argument 1: Since almost all textile clothing will burn, to one degree or another, warnings should be directed toward those products which are unreasonably flammable, but those products have already been taken off the market.

Response: The burning rate of cotton flannel fabrics is faster than that of many paper products. The consumer should have some indication of which fabrics are significantly more flammable than others, as well as some say as to what is "unreasonably flammable."

Argument 2: Surveys by the National Smoke, Fire and Burn Foundation found that, nationwide, over 95% of adults and over 85% of school-aged children know that clothing will burn, and of course, if it burns they can be injured. Do we need to tell people what they already know?

Response: At issue is not whether consumers know that clothing will burn. The issue is whether consumers know that a particular garment is highly flammable. Moreover, do they know what to do if their garment ignites? Buchbinder (1973) reported that "‘running' was the most frequent first reaction with ‘beating flames with hands’ and ‘trying to remove clothing’ ranking second and third in frequency." Running is an inappropriate response because it fans the fire.

Argument 3: Clothing items are among the safest of all household textile products, with more than 22* other items being involved in accidents more frequently than clothing. We do not put warnings on safe products.

Response: The purpose of the Consumer Product Hazard Index was to aid the Consumer Product Commission in establishing its regulatory priorities. It is based on the premise that risk involves both the probability of harm and its severity. The frequency of injury associated with the use of various products is obtained from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) analyses of hospital emergency admissions. The severity of injury is ranked on a scale assigning the highest number to death and low numbers to injuries such as skin abrasions and irritations. (The index is adjusted to give extra weight to children's injuries.) Unfortunately, the index does not take into account exposure to hazardous conditions. If exposure is infrequent, then injuries will be rare. A product may have a relatively low rank on the index even if exposure to hazardous conditions invariably yields lethal consequences. Further, many products may be grouped into a single category, e.g., "Clothing Inc. Day & Nightwear," which will tend to mask differences in the level of risk associated with its members. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (NEISS NEWS, December 1975), the index does not indicate a cause and effect relationship between the product and the injury.

The intended audience of product warnings and safety information are individuals who use the product. Likewise, risk should be viewed in terms of the individual. The risk to an individual in using a product depends on his or her exposure to conditions that can cause bodily harm. In my opinion, a product cannot be said to be safe if its users are ignorant of the conditions that expose them to danger.

Argument 4: None of the flammability accidents associated with clothing items happen without some improper contributory action by either the victim or someone around that victim. It always takes either ignorance (a lack of knowledge of some contributory hazard), carelessness, or neglect (either failure to supervise or failure to educate) for a flammability accident to happen with clothing.

Response: Flammable clothing is safe provided it is not exposed to flame or extreme heat. Similarly, fire is safe provided one is not directly exposed to flame, extreme heat, or toxic smoke. It is the variability in what constitutes safe proximity between clothing of various fabric types and a heat source that is the concern. I agree that clothing might be exposed to fire because of the failure to supervise or to educate. But the very purpose of warnings and safety information is to educate consumers so that they can make informed decisions, such as opting not to purchase the garment, or only to wear the garment when they will not be exposed to open flames, or to know what to do if the garment catches on fire.

Argument 5: A flammability accident is not reasonably foreseeable in the sense that it is just as foreseeable that the purchaser of an article of clothing will be struck and killed by lightning.

Response: It is reasonably foreseeable that people who wear highly flammable clothing are more likely to be severely burned as a consequence of being exposed to fire or extreme heat than people who wear less flammable clothing. It is reasonably foreseeable that firemen are more likely to be exposed to fire and extreme heat than lawyers. All other factors being equal, it is reasonably foreseeable that firemen run a greater risk of their clothing catching on fire than lawyers. Lightning does not distinguish between firemen and lawyers.

Argument 6: Even if a manufacturer put a warning in an article of clothing, it wouldn’t work. Given the choice between two apparently comparable products, one carrying a label and the other without such a warning, the consumer will invariably select the one without a warning because unlabeled goods would carry the implication that they are (somehow) safer.

Response: If the garment without the warning is less flammable than the one with the warning, then consumers should select the one without the label. If the product without the warning label is equally flammable, or more flammable, than the one with the label, it should be provided a warning label.

Argument 7: Selective warnings would mislead consumers because there would be a reasonable basis for the inference that unlabeled items are free from the shortcomings of those classes of goods which carry a warning label. Even if all shirts had flammability labels wouldn't it be logical for consumers to believe that unlabeled trousers or underwear items are safer?

Response: It is not logical that a person shopping for a shirt would purchase a pair of briefs instead because he or she believed that the underwear was less flammable than the shirt. In my opinion, it does not matter whether a consumer believes that unlabeled trousers or underwear are safer than a labeled shirt because it is not relevant to behavior.

Argument 8: So if warning labels are used in clothing items, they will have to be put in all clothing items.

Response: Warning labels should be provided on only those clothing items that are highly flammable and where there is a discrepancy between perceived flammability and actual flammability. In other words, warnings should only be provided if they are informative.

Argument 9: It seems obvious that if all items of clothing did carry a warning about fire or flammability, the warning would have absolutely no meaning to the public.

Response: If all items of clothing were provided the same warning, the warning would have little value. But all garments are not equally as flammable.

Argument 10: Consumers may know that clothing burns, but not its rate of burning and how much injury can result at a particular period of time. As a matter of fact, no one knows that, not even the experts. The rate of burning and injuries that might be sustained depend on a score of factors, including how the garment is ignited and by what ignited it; how long it burns before burning is detected; how easily the particular fabric can be extinguished; how the garment is designed and how it fits; what other garments are being worn; what the victim does (or fails to do); the availability of rescue; the environment; and others. Explicit, detailed descriptive warnings are obviously impractical.

Response: Space constraints combined with legibility requirements may make it impractical to place all safety information on a hang tag. If this is the case, then it will be necessary to determine what information should appear on the tag and what, if any, information should be placed in a supplemental source such as informational material that is packaged with a garment.

Argument 11: Why clothing and textiles? What about the 100 or more other products in our homes which are more frequently, or much, much more frequently involved in accidents than clothing? Doesn't logic also require that they carry warning labels? These products range from bicycles to pencils, from stairs to scissors, from bathtubs to beds.

Response: No, logic does not necessarily dictate that such products carry warning labels. Information is for the reduction of uncertainty. There is little uncertainty that one can fall from a bicycle or that a bicycle can be involved in a collision. There is little uncertainty that a sharp pencil can cause a puncture wound, or that changes in elevation can be hazardous to negotiate. There is little uncertainty that bathtubs can be slippery. However, the burning rate of cotton flannel is not obvious unless it is directly observed.

A latent risk factor is a condition or property of a product that possesses the following characteristics :

  • It is not obvious to the consumer;
  • It is inconsistent with user expectations;
  • It increases the risk that users will not be able to respond to a hazardous condition in time to avoid harm.

In my opinion as a human factors specialist, if consumers are not aware that a fabric is highly flammable, then that fabric's flammability is a latent risk factor. (Note: Flammability is not a hazard. A hazard can directly cause harm. Fire is a hazard. Flammability is a factor that affects the probability of becoming exposed to the hazard.) High priority should be given to alerting users to a product's latent risk factors.

Conclusion

In my opinion as a human factors specialist, there are few, if any, arguments that carry weight for not alerting consumers that a fabric is highly flammable. The cotton flannel nightgown worn by Jane Doe should have contained a warning that alerted her that it was highly flammable and to keep it away from open flame or sources of high heat. In addition, it should have contained instructions as to what to do in case the garment caught on fire. While it should be left to a jury to decide whether a warning label would have prevented Ms. Doe's accident, in my opinion as a human factors specialist, the failure to provide such a warning denied her the opportunity to make an informed decision as to whether or not to comply with its instructions.

2934 Steamboat Island NW
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G. David Sloan, Inc., 1999, www.gdsloan.com, Olympia, WA, USA
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