Southern California Section of the Society of Plastics Engineers

Promoting the scientific and engineering knowledge pertaining to plastics.

Product Liabilities and Testing

 Between 1970 and 1980, one phrase caught the attention of the manufacturers and suppliers more than any other phrase: product liability. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that the number of product liability suits increased 983% from 1974 to 1988. In 1991 it was reported by the insurance industry that $1.6 billion was paid out in product liability losses. They also reported that an additional $1.1 billion was spent on legal costs (1). The cost of liability insurance has increased substantially in the last five years. Virtually every industry has been plagued with liability suits, and the plastics industry is certainly no exception.

 

The entire concept of product liability suits emerged from the total lack of concern regarding product safety that characterized product designers and manufacturers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports the loss of over 10,000 lives each year and over 2 million disabling injuries annually (2). Recently, a material supplier and a plastic fittings manufacturer and distributor were sued by an angry consumer because plastic fittings failed prematurely, flooding an entire building and ruining expensive furnishings and carpeting. In another case, a molding machinery manufacturer was sued because a machine operator lost his right hand while trying to free a part from the mold and accidentally tripped the switch that closed the mold. Yet another classic illustration of a plastic product liability case involved a small manufacturer of PVC handles that were incapable of handing high heat. The handle was softened by high temperature, exposing live electrical contacts and electrocuting a person.

 

From the preceding discussion, it is clear that product liability and product safety are interrelated. The majority of manufacturers, especially the smaller ones, allow themselves to become the target of such product liability suits by thinking that they are impervious to such suits. The fact of the matter is that product liability involves everyone: material manufacturers, product designers, fabricators, sellers, and installers. The manufacturer may be held liable if:

 

1. The product is defective in design and is not suitable for its intended use.

2. The product is manufactured defective and proper testing and inspection was not carried out.

3. The product lacks adequate labeling and warnings.

4. The product is unsafely packaged.

5. The proper records of product sale, distribution, and manufacturer are not kept up to date.

6. The proper records of failure and customer complaints are not maintained (3).

 

What can a machine manufacturer do to avoid expensive lawsuits? What are the steps a manufacturer of a product must take before placing the product into the hands of somewhat novice customers? How can a molder who is merely providing a service to the industry protect himself from unknowingly getting involved in such product liability problems? How many ways can a design engineer design a product with all the safeguards built-in without affecting the product’s originality, cost, and his or her creativity? How can a material supplier prevent getting sued because a product made from his material failed because of product design problems and not material quality?

 

Obviously, there is no single answer to all of these questions. The following is a general guideline everyone should follow to steer clear of unwarranted product liability suits.

 

17.2. PRODUCT/EQUIPMENT DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS

 

The product or equipment design engineer is often considered a prime mover of product safety. The key factors to be considered in designing a safe product or equipment are consumer ignorance, manufacturing mishaps, and deliberate misuse. A team of designers must review the design individually and collectively from different viewpoints and all possible angles. If a company is not large enough to staff a team of designers, so outside consulting firm should be allowed to review the design. Product insurance representatives should also be consulted during  preliminary design since many insurance companies have engineers on staff as safety consultants. The design engineer should also be familiar with all standards and regulations concerning his or her product. Some of the other minor design considerations are selecting components with a high degree of reliability,  designing systems to permit ready access for operating, repairing, and replacing components, designing equipment that takes into consideration the capabilities and limitations of operators, designing components that are incapable of being revised or improperly installed, and anticipating all possible environmental and chemical hazards (4).

 

17.3. PACKAGING CONSIDERATIONS

 

Packaging in a broad sense is defined as the outer shell of the product. Since plastics are used extensively as an encloser material for products such as appliances, electrical equipment, liquid chemicals, food, and beverages, the product safety and liability considerations are of extreme interest. The product enclosures should be designed to be tamperproof to prevent the insides from being exposed to persons unfamiliar with the potential hazards. The packaging material should be tested for toxicity, chemical compatibility, and environmental resistance. Identification labels indicating product name, model number, serial and lot number, date code, and manufacturing code have been found useful in making products safer.

 

17.4. INSTRUCTIONS, WARNING LABELS, AND TRAINING

 

One of the major lines of defense against the product liability suits is providing adequate instructions, warning labels, and training to the consumer as well as to the installer and service persons. All products cannot be made 100 percent safe. There will always be some degree of risk involved in handling certain products or machinery. Therefore, designers of the product or equipment must take into account the safety aspect and come up with a systematic procedure to deal with well-designed but inherently hazardous products. First, a clear, concise, but easy to read instruction manual is in order. The writer of such an instruction manual must take into account possible misinterpretation by the reader and must be aware of the consequences in case this happens.

 

The machinery or product manufacturer should not only comply with government or industry regulations regarding warning labels but also place warning labels on his own wherever it is deemed necessary to prevent accidents. The warnings should not only “warn” but also indicate the consequences of disregarding the warning (5). Machinery manufacturers, as well as fabricators, can prevent the majority of accidents by implementing a proper training program for machine operators, installers, maintenance personnel, and foremen. Developing a safety training program on specific machines that the operators will be working with, having safety refresher courses, and distributing safety bulletins are a few of the most useful suggestions that have proven very successful (6).

 

17.5. TESTING AND RECORDKEEPING

 

One of the most powerful weapons any manufacturer trying to steer clear of product liability suits can have is a comprehensive testing and recordkeeping program. In many cases, quality control records may be the only defense the manufacturer may have in a courtroom.

 

The quality control testing should start with an inspection of the raw material and components as they are received. Whenever possible, the supplier should be required to meet military or other industry specifications. If the raw material or components are to be used in a potentially hazardous product, the supplier should be requested to provide certification along with each shipment. In-process testing is equally important. Here again, the quality control and destructive or nondestructive testing requirements should be set in accordance with industry standards. In the case of machine manufacturers, a thorough pre-shipment inspection should help eliminate any surprises. In some cases, it is advisable to retain an independent testing laboratory. The data generated by the independent test laboratories is often found to be more useful and convincing than self-generated data in courtroom defense. Four good reasons outlined below make a strong case for independent testing for product liability (7).

 

1. Objectivity. A manufacturer may be too close to his own products to maintain an impartial, unbiased viewpoint regarding their safety features. An outside safety engineer can look at the products impassionately, pointing out unsafe features that may escape an internal review.

2. Exposure. Independent engineering and testing laboratories make it their business to keep abreast of current specifications and safety laws as well as proposed safety legislation.

3. Independence. Since accountability is becoming a more important aspect of product liability, a documented report containing solid evidence of testing and fail-safe analysis by an independent firm carries much weight in establishing the intent of the manufacturer to design and make safe products before they reach the market.

4. Anticipation. Product testing before the injury and product liability suits is good preventive medicine.

 

The other important task for a manufacturer is recordkeeping. A well-organized recordkeeping policy accomplishes many objectives. First, it establishes that the company is taking reasonable precautions to produce safe products. Second, in the event of an accident or injury, it allows the manufacturer to backtrack and pinpoint the cause of failure. Third, with the help of records, the manufacturer can prove that his product did, in fact, meet the minimum requirements. It is advisable to keep records of design, manufacturing, inspection, quality control, and testing procedures and results on file for at least five years. The retention period should be based upon individual product need. The records should also include material specification, suppliers, serial and lot numbers, and customer names (8). Other useful documents include the company’s safety policy manual, design changes, failure reports, marketing and shipping records, and advertisement records.

 

17.6. SAFETY STANDARDS ORGANIZATIONS

 

Appendix E lists the organizations responsible for setting standards for safety.

 

REFERENCES

1. 

Goodden, R. L., Preventing and Handling Product Liability, Marcel Dekker, Inc., New York, 1996.

2. Kolb, J. and Ross, S. S., Product Safety and Liability, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1980,

p. 4.

3. Ibid., p. 12.

4. Ibid., p. 330.

5. Ibid., p. 208.

6. Allchin, T., “Product Liability in Plastics Industry,” SPE Pacific Tech. Conf. (PACTEC). 57, 1975, p. 57.

7. Zavita, Reference 1, p. 34.

8. Fountas, N., “Product Liability—Prepare Now for Judgment Day.” Plast. World (Feb. 1978), p. 68.

 

*       From Handbook of Plastics Testing Technology 3rd Edition

         By Vishu Shah

 

 

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