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Warnings Great and Small, Who Standardizes Them All?

My daughter, who has recently reached the “bazillion questions” stage of toddlerhood, is currently obsessed with warning signs. I cannot seem to go anywhere without her spotting some sign or decal with a picture inside of a bold, red triangle or inside of a circle with a slash through it and asking what it means. The truth is, I never noticed how ubiquitous warnings were until I had someone pointing out each and every one of them to me. Having had so many warning signs brought to my attention lately, I have begun to notice that some warnings are strikingly similar to one another, despite being on different products or properties and in different contexts, and so I wondered who is responsible for standardizing these warnings, including the images of unfortunate things happening to stick people that they often contain.

Generally speaking, warnings are intended to give notice to individuals of some hazard or condition that may cause personal injury or property damage, in order to avoid liability. However, whether a warning is effective to avoid liability depends, in part, on whether the warning is sufficient to give notice to a reasonable person of the hazard or condition and the nature and degree of risk involved. As is often the case when sufficiency is a question, standards have emerged. Basically, standardization creates a sort of litmus test for whether something is reasonable or sufficient. In other words, if something adheres to the applicable standards, then it is generally sufficient.

The applicable standards for warnings may be promulgated by different agencies or organizations depending on what the warnings pertain to. For example, standards for highway warnings are often set by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Similarly, the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration prescribes standards for warnings pertaining to workplaces, and warning labels on consumer products are governed by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. However, even when standards are promulgated by a specific agency or organization, the standards themselves are often derived from other sources and are merely adopted by the agency or organization administering the standards. In the United States, one of the most common sources of such derived standards is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

According to its website, the ANSI develops voluntary consensus standards in accordance with requirements for openness and due process, which ensures that development of the standards is a fair and responsive process that is open to all directly and materially affected parties, including individuals and representatives of companies, government agencies, industry, labor, and trad associations, consumer groups, academics, subject-matter experts, and others who voluntarily participate in the process. The ANSI develops standards for more than just warning signs, however. Standards developed by the ANSI may apply to procedures, materials, testing, reporting, etc.

One increasingly prevalent issue in the area of standards for and sufficiency of warnings is the language barrier.

While warning standards often require pictures that are likely to be universally understood, they often will also require words, which may not be understood by someone who does not speak the language the warning is written in. In fact, there is a pending lawsuit against Universal Orlando Resort which may end up setting a precedent for requiring warning signs in theme parks to be in both English and Spanish.

Even with the language barrier aside, sometimes the picture in the warning is difficult to understand. For example, of all the warnings I have had to explain to my daughter in recent months, the hardest picture for me to explain so far has been on the warning placed beside our own garage door, which you can see in the image for this article.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our commercial and business litigation practice can be found here.

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