Product Safety: Suggestions For Better Use and Purchase Behavior Through Consumer Education and Information

Jeffery L. Thompson, Carnegie-Mellon University
[ to cite ]:
Jeffery L. Thompson (1974) ,"Product Safety: Suggestions For Better Use and Purchase Behavior Through Consumer Education and Information", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 101-107.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 101-107


Jeffery L. Thompson, Carnegie-Mellon University

[This research is being sponsored by the National Science Foundation under grant XGI-3277X.]


In the spring of 1972 the National Science Foundation awarded a research group at Carnegie-Mellon University [Members of the group besides the author include S. Feichtner, D. Pittle, R. Staelin and A. Weinstein.] a grant to investigate the hypothesis that consumers knowledgeable about basic safety principles act more safely with regard to consumer products than consumers with less knowledge. The projects used as a starting point the basic view of the President's Commission on Consumer Product Safety: that a reasonable and prudent person should be free of unwarranted danger in using consumer products and that the average consumer should be able to assess the probability, nature and severity of risk associated with a given product. That simple charge which served as the main impetus to the legislation that created the National Consumer Product Safety Commission .s loaded with terms that have not been defined, much less quantified. In clear precise words what is a "reasonable and prudent person"? What risks can the average consumer assess? Assuming, even, that we can agree on what assessment means, what information must reach the consumer and in what form so she/he can understand the probability, severity and nature of a given risk.

One of the early concerns raised by the project group was the experience of others to change public safety behavior with information, notably with respect to seat belts and smoking. Of particular concern was the seat belt campaign where the nature and severity of risk, if not intuitively clear, was made explicitly clear by public information messages. The number of accidents, injuries, deaths are relatively well known, and yet the incidence of seat belt usage has not increased substantially and resistance to mandatory use of seat belts is both intense and widespread. The charge of this grant was not to understand the lack of success of other programs and we did not attempt to do so. However, we were confronted with very similar problems. Specifically what do people know about the operation of consumer products and what are the potential hazards of specific consumer products? What severity of threat or risk can people internalize and how will it modify their behavior? What can we teach the population at large about consumer products and their safe usage.

This project identified four areas related to the hypothesis that if consumers know how a product works and are aware of its potential hazards, they will act in a manner to protect themselves from the hazards. The first requirement was to find out what the average consumer knows about product safety principles. This required establishing some type of base level profile of knowledge. The second part of the problem was to determine what the consumer should know to protect herself/himself. The third problem was finding a method of transferring the needed knowledge to the consumer in a useful form, while the fourth problem concerned measuring the effect, if any, this increased knowledge has on a consumer in terms of the incidence of accidents.

This paper reports some of our work on the first two problem areas. Work concerning the third area is still in progress and involves designing eight modules for classroom instruction. The material is being developed for high school juniors and includes films, demonstrations, and workbooks. Testing the effects of these educational modules will not be completed until early in 1975.


In order to better understand what the consumer presently knows about product safety principles, a survey instrument was designed to measure both general science knowledge and specific hardward knowledge. General science knowledge questions were intended to probe one's understanding of efficiency, kinetic energy, and electrical energy concepts of ground, short, shock, chemical and thermal energy. The specific product questions probed one's understanding of such items as what is a fuse, why does thermal shock break glass, and the dangers of power lawn mowers.

At the same time a number of questions were also asked to determine a person's behavior with products. How a consumer uses a product was probed with inquiries about replacing fuses; picking up stones and sticks before using a power mower; using jars to store left-overs in the refrigerator, making the proper grounded connection with an appliance that has a three prong, grounded cord, and others of an equally specific nature.

Particulars of the survey and the results of are covered in the accompanying paper (Staelin and Weinstein, 1974) but some generalizations are of particular interest.

Average scores from a large sample group of Pittsburgh adults forced us to realize that most people used, for example, the terms of ground, short and open circuit interchangeably. Perhaps they know those words are concerned with electricity but beyond that, e.g. what happens from the utility company to a piece of warm toast, they lack any substantive knowledge. Also it was observed that general science information was no assurance of practical knowledge. Finally and probably most interesting was the fact that reported safety behavior was positively associated with technical safety knowledge.

From the earliest survey results it was clear that we could not explain how products worked by teaching consumers Ohm's Law, Newton's Laws and a few other basic principles and then expect that people could or would extrapolate these fundamentals to consumer products. It was equally clear that we could not detail the workings of tens of thousands of products. As the survey results appeared in more detail it became clear that the technical competence of the average consumer was low. However, most of the principles needed were not intellectually overpowering and knowledge of these basic principles was associated with better safety behavior. Thus it was felt that careful design of the educational modules could transfer the concepts to the average consumer and have impact on the accident rate.


More than five dozen household consumer products were purchased under the grant to obtain a) a reasonable assessment of the safety information available at the time of purchase and b) a variety of products to examine in detail to determine possible safety hazards. This situation allowed us (a mechanical engineer and an electrical engineer) to compare how much information was available prior to and at the time of purchase with the information we felt we should have had prior to or at the time of purchase.

We realized that our sample size (63 products from 28 stores in the Greater Pittsburgh area) was too small to generalize to the total population of consumer goods. However, we felt that by selecting common generic products we could reasonably approximate the quality in terms of safety of a large portion of the consumer product market. One major goal of the buying situation was to test if engineers could, by visual inspection, assess what potential hazards there are in common products.

The market place experiences varied enormously, from no information (the most common experience) to one situation where the word "safety" appeared on the package of a clearly unsafe toy.

A group of examples will illustrate the range of excellent to terrible or non-existent hazard warnings.

A. Clear warning of hazard and consequences. Outdoor charcoal brickets "Warning: do not use indoors or without ventilation as fumes may collect and cause death." Tag on hammer handle "Warning: use this hammer only for driving common nails. Always wear safety glasses as chips from the nail or hammer can cause severe eye damage.

B. Warning of a hazard (not specified) but no mention of the possible consequences. Almost all aerosol spray cans have words to the effect "Do not inhale" or "use only in a well ventilated area" and !do not puncture or incinerate." Child's bicycle without a coaster brake has a small tag on the pedal-bearing hub that says "for off the road use only." Drill having a grounded plug with an instruction tag that says "for your protection use only the proper electrical connection and receptacle."

C. No warning of any hazard. Power tool advertising pictures showing people using drills and grinders without safety glasses.

Fondue pot advertising picture showing a woman with a long, full sleeved gown reaching toward the appliance.

A vaporizer that requires baking soda in the water to make a conductive solution, does not mention that the current flow is highly dependent on solution strength. The instructions say "1/8 tpsn." to one full container of water. If the instructions are misread and 1 tablespoon is used the current exceeds 14 Amps in a unit rated for a maximum of 5 Amps. If 1/8 is read as 1-8 and the consumer, believing the old adage "the more the better'', uses 8 tablespoons, then the current exceeds 60 Amps.

D. A real potential hazard is minimized. A clothes dryer with instructions that say "no special wiring needed." The unit has a grounded plug and to protect the user from shock it must be used with a grounded circuit.

E. Outright misinformation. A toy oven that is labeled on the box as a "supersafety" toy uses a light bulb as a heating element. Internal temperatures are sufficiently high to cause a 2nd or 3rd degree burn depending on contact time and the unit can be operated with the door open.

In analyzing the above types of information a number of conclusions can be reached. First for warnings similar to those listed under A, the theory necessary to understand why a product is hazardous may be quite complex, yet the danger associated with the product is easy to understand. For example it is not necessary to know that charcoal doesn't necessarily combust completely to CO2 but may only partially combust to CO and that CO is a very active chemical compound having a high affinity for the oxygen carriers of the blood stream. Instead the consumer needs only to understand that fumes are given off when the product is burned and that by breathing these fumes you might die. Assuming the user can read we are hard pressed to think of a more clear, concise warning.

If you want the convenience of prepared charcoal materials then the nature and severity of the risk of using the product are clearly defined. The location of the warning, type-size and print color would seem to be the only criticism with this type of warning.

With all other warnings we felt there was a great deal to criticize and the intensity of criticism is proportional to the frequency-severity index of injuries with those products. From the survey conducted it is totally unreasonable to think that the ordinary user knows the meaning or consequence of phrases such as "use only with proper outlet," or do not incinerate. Whereas "harmful or fatal if swallowed" does not define the hazard as to the physiology of poisoning it does make clear the effects. We feel that it is essential to be absolutely blunt in stating the consequences of potential or hidden hazards or failing to follow instructions.

We also examined the various types of information available to even the most thoughtful and cautious consumer. This included such publications as Consumer Reports and sporadic government publications. Consumer Reports deals primarily with overall quality and dollar value, although they are specific about products that are clearly dangerous. The government reports, however, tend to be of the "Everything you wanted to know about toasters but were afraid to ask" variety. Beyond learning that you have to stick it in to make it work they weren't very helpful.


In some cases we purchased two products of one kind, e.g., two ladders, two coffee pots, etc. to make a comparison. In a few instances we were able to buy the brands rated worst and best by Consumer Reports. Some products were purchased for specific features, e.g., double-insulated power tools, two different fondue pots because of their contrasting handle design. The other products were purchased for a variety of reasons: random pick, a good or bad feature pointed out in Consumer Reports; observing a good or bad feature at point of purchase and products bought to illustrate some specific point (hockey gloves as an example of mechanical insulation).

The products were examined in detail by engineering students and the project engineers to determine how the products functioned, what might go wrong with them, and the possible hazards associated with either malfunction or misuse. Detailed reports were written on each product examined. Information in the reports included checks of the products against existing voluntary industry standards, UL spec's if they existed for that particular product, and an evaluation of any applicable standards. The reports also included suggestions as to the information which the consumer should have in order to use the product safely, based on the students' and staff's investigation as to what hazards there were in the product. The product analyses showed an interesting contrast in potential hazards as illustrated by two examples. A nine-inch circular saw that is very obviously potentially hazardous because of the high speed blade had no additional hidden dangers. However, an apparently incouous vaporizer was found to operate on the principle of heating the water by the water's resistance to electrical current flow. To make the water conductive it is necessary to add baking soda to the bath. But the current flow is highly sensitive to the solution strength of baking soda, i.e., how much baking soda is added to the water. As more baking soda is added the resistance of the water goes down which means the current flow increases. The resistance drops quickly with small additions of baking soda to the bath, so that if too much baking soda is added by misreading the instructions or by accident then the current flow is much greater than allowable maximum 5 Amp for which the unit is rated. With excessive current flow the unit quickly heats up to the point where there are two impending hazards: electrical short circuit from melting the wiring insulation and explosion from suddenly vaporizing some of the water to steam. We are concerned about how anyone can be taught to protect himself from truly hidden hazards. The reports very strongly reinforced the need for warnings and for the hazard to be described with some specificity.

The problem remains of trying to review a multitude of products that one might purchase or use. We began to examine the products in terms of their common features and in fact developed six dimensions in which all products could be measured. If the consumer could understand these six portable concepts he could evaluate any product and use it more wisely i.e. safely.

The six dimensions needed to assess the safety of a product are:

A. Mechanics (statics and dynamics)

B. Electrical energy

C. Thermal energy, burns, and flammability

D. Insulation/isolation

E. Materials and fasteners

F. Design logic

If these criteria can be taught to consumers and if they (the consumers) can take them away as portable concepts then consumers can buy and use products safely even if they have never seen a product of that kind before. This seemed to be a more hopeful task than trying to make everyone mini-experts on washing machines, toasters, drills, television sets, popcorn poppers, hair dryers, stoves, refrigerators, poisons, chemicals, solvents, fasteners, etc.

As it turned out the six dimensions were also a convenient way to structure the detailed analyses of the products on hand. In reading over the reports we felt the need to develop more detailed information about electrical energy than any other single topic because it was such a preponderant source of energy for products and the survey of adults showed it to be one of the least understood subjects.

Detailed analyses of the products on hand were catalogued into the six dimensions itemized above. The type of information entered into Mechanics included such things as tip-over criteria for coffee pots, fondue pots, deep-fat fryers and vaporizers; and an indication of the difficulty of pulling the same items off a counter by their cords. These points were of interest because a large portion of burns with these items are associated with small children having the contents spilled on them by knocking the product over or pulling it off a counter. Other kinds of information included the torque at the wheel to make a rider-bicycle combination go over backwards (a "wheelie" in the vernacular). The shear force of hedge trimmer blades, the meta-center of childrens' riding toys... any mechanical feature of the product.

Under Electrical Energy we included: measuring current demand under load, current leakage, if the product was grounded, if it should be grounded (and wasn't), shock hazard, and power consumption. We examined extension cords and their rated capacity, taking note of how many common products' power demand exceeded that capacity. Current leakage in older, used products was investigated although all new products were well within the allowed range (usually less than 10% of the allowable current flow). However most used products (metal case drills, saws, etc.) were found to be over by nearly a factor of 10.

In the Thermal Energy category we were interested in two features: the physiology of burns and the temperature during operation of common "hot" products. Items measured included the outside surface of the container and bath temperature of fondue pots, coffee pots, deep fat fryers, vaporizers, baby food serving dishes, childrens' toy ovens, toasters, toaster ovens, stoves, clothes dryers and pop-corn poppers. Some considerable effort has also been spent in a literature survey and in developing an analytical model with respect to changes in surface temperature, conductivity of the material touched and contact time.

"Insulation and isolation" is a matter of how in various products one is insulated or isolated from the energy sources just examined: mechanical energy; electrical energy; thermal energy and chemical energy. Insulation is considered to be the process of reducing the energy flow rate from one body to another, whereas isolation is construed to mean removing the user from the path of energy flow. In the case of mechanical energy, ice hockey players wear pads that act to insulate their bodies from mechanical shock such as being struck by a stick, puck or other player. The rink owners surround the skating space with boards and plexiglas to isolate the players from the spectators. The rubber coating on wires is electrical insulation, a bicycles chain guard is a mechanical isolator. In this section we were interested in measuring how well different materials and designs perform as insulators and isolators.

"Materials and fasteners" is a collection of examples of materials and fasteners intended to do a particular job, or mismatched for the function described. The examples included putting hot liquid in a cold jar or cold liquid in a hot jar; childrens' toys assembled with pins, staples etc.; metal surface products that have heating elements inside; water soluble glue used in shoe assembly; flammable materials used in childrens' costumes for Halloween; childrens t toy plastic dishes that shatter; and other instances of terrible to excellent material and fastener selection.

"Design logic" is used to point out design features that usually only appear in the use environment. This is typified by a hand mixer with the beater eject button so close to the speed control that while changing the speed of the mixer one's thumb also covers the eject button. In this configuration it is exceedingly easy to eject the beaters while running at full speed. In other models the eject button is located elsewhere.

With these six criteria we were in a position to then evaluate our products and decide which ones were better in what dimensions. With the information we had in each category we were able to specify the information needed to make a wise purchase with respect to safety for any of the products selected in the beginning of the study. The most important and the most difficult transfer is of course to get the information in these six safety dimensions to the consumer.


An "ideal" situation (for an engineer) would be to have point of purchase tags on products give the radius of gyration, dialectic strength, pH, thermal inertia, etc. of the product. While those terms are in fact the real hard data one needs to make a quantitative comparison of two or more products, our survey of the average consumer made it abundantly clear that those pieces of information in engineering terms would be less than worthless. So we began what has proven to be the least scientific but most arduous part of the project: explaining, for instance, the significance grounding to a person who doesn't know the difference between an open and short circuit. A common reaction on the part of non-engineering people has been that they aren't interested in knowing how an iron works, or exactly how hot the sole plate is. But they do wish to know how one iron compares to another in terms of more qualitative safety measures. Consumers in general believe the manufacturer has designed the product to be safe. Thus if the thermostat control dial goes from 1 to 10, for a product such as a deep fat fryer, the consumer normally assumes that at setting 10 there is no danger from fire. However we have found that at setting 10 the temperature of the frying oil is close enough to its flash point that exposed flames are a real and imminent hazard. Thus, it seems advantageous to have the consumer a) think about possible safety hazards before purchase and b) be able to evaluate any safety information supplied to him by the manufacturer.

We are currently preparing materials to move in two directions: 1) educational films and workbooks which explain the six dimensions of safety and 2) product hang tags to alert the consumer at the time of purchase of necessary precautions and/or potential hazards. The films and workbook materials are being designed to explain to consumers what we feel they need to know about the six dimensions of safety from the vantage point of hindsight and more than a year's investigation into the potential hazards of products. The basic message is that a consumer should always ask "What is the intended use of the product? What are the potential hazards associated with the product? How can I protect myself from these hazards?" The concept of the hang tag is to make every potential hazard as clear as possible and give the consumer some real information as to probability of risK and its nature and severity.

These materials are being put together now to be used with an experimental subject group this spring. Next year we will again survey both the experimental group and a control group and determine what if any impact information has made towards reducing product related accidents.


The work completed to data on this project has identified six portable concepts that we feel are teachable and at the same time encompass the major dimensions of product safety. Detailed analysis of common household products (stove, blenders, mixers, toasters, irons, bicycles, toys, step ladders, power tools, fondue pots, etc.) have delineated the kind of information the consumer needs in order to purchase and use a product safely. A parallel survey of consumers' knowledge of safety features, terminology and practice has given definition to the profile of the consumer as to what information is teachable and what technical aspects of consumer products lie outside the comprehension of the ordinary consumer and user of products.

The portable concepts that we think consumers can acquire and use in evaluating and using any product are relatively simple any product that does something uses energy and/or produces energy, electrical, mechanical or thermal; the consumer should protect him/herself from these forms of energy with insulation, or isolation from the energy transfer; products should be made of a material to do the intended job and fastened adequately; and the product should be designed logically for the use environment. Industry can do a great deal to make education of the consumer usefly by providing real information for the consumer in cases where the technical mechanism driving the hazard is too complex for the consumer to comprehend. For these products the manufacturer should provide as a minimum a realistic picture of the potential danger and its consequences.

Consumer education and information offers a viable alternative to eliminating hazardous products by regulation. The difficulty in writing intelligent and equitable yet safeguarding regulations is so great and the number of household products so large that consumer information and the economic pressure of a free marketplace seem to be a far more efficient method of driving out or forcing the improvement of unsafe products than regulating them out.


Staelin, R. and Weinstein, A. Correlates of consumer safety behavior. In S. Ward and P. Wright (eds.), Advances in Consumer Research Volume I. Urbana, Illinois: Association for Consumer Research, 1974, 87-100.