Risk Communication - Warnings & Safety Information

The volume of safety information presented to people has grown dramatically in recent decades. Messages come in the formats of printed text appearing on products, instruction sheets, posted signs and web pages. They may occur as auditory signals presented as sirens, alarms, bells, and human or even computerized voice commands. Messages may include visual symbols, pictures, diagrams, video or some combination of any of these. The increasing amounts of safety information add to the existing background of other information in our environment. Exponent scientists have a long history of investigating the communication of risk as a scientific field of inquiry. They bring expertise on human cognition, perception, behavior, and information processing to both the design of warnings and the potential for behavioral change in response to safety messages.

Development of Safety Information

Human factors consultants at Exponent provide technical assistance in the development of safety information for products, environments, and processes. Past experience has included the development of safety information for household products, recreation and fitness products, medical devices and products used in the workplace and transportation, among others. For any particular project, the warning development process is tailored to the individual product or activity. The process often involves a combination of the following activities.

  • Analysis of existing databases and the published scientific literature to identify patterns of unsafe behaviors or adverse events
  • Prioritization of risk based on the frequency and severity of injury associated with unsafe behaviors
  • Reference to both general and specific product or industry standards and regulations offering guidance about risk communications practices 
  • Examination of what is “state-of-the-art” in risk communication for a particular product or industry 
  • Development of specific language, pictograms, or auditory signals for potential warning messages with the input from product users and potential users 
  • Validation of comprehension of proposed safety information through additional user testing
  • Documentation of the appropriate development process provides useful support to defend decisions made at each design stage that led to the safety information ultimately created.

Effectiveness of Safety Information

Human behavioral response to safety information is an active area of investigation by consultants in the Human Factors practice. Exponent scientists and engineers have published peer-reviewed articles on the subjects of risk communication including experimental research on warnings compliance, reviews of the warnings scientific literature, analyses of the real-world effectiveness of warnings, and historical trends in warning labeling. Such work has led to a scientific understanding of when and how such information may or may not lead to self-protective behaviors. For example, the warnings provided by the audible signals from smoke detectors have been effective in dramatically reducing injury and fatality in home fires. Other warnings have not been found to be so effective. Printed labels used in some vehicles to warn about special handling characteristics were not effective in reducing rollover injury rates compared with vehicles without the warnings. Other notable research findings demonstrate that the average person is not able to estimate their own and others likelihood to comply with specific warnings. People consistently overestimated these rates compared to studies of actual compliance with the warnings. Our own studies and review of the warnings literature have shown that factors related to the state of the individual (e.g., attention, information seeking, fatigue) and his or her motivation to follow the safety information (e.g., amount of effort to comply, benefits from complying, previous personal experience) are important influences on warning effectiveness.

Our services include:

  • Evaluation of current warnings communications
  • Consolidation and optimization of messages to reduce complexity and volume
  • Development of risk communications including text, pictures, auditory or visual signals
  • Identification of patterns of unsafe user behaviors
  • Risk analysis 
  • Development of instructional and supplementary product information 
  • Review of industry warning practices 
  • Review of warnings used by competing product manufacturers 
  • Extraction of labeling, marking, and safety information in guidance documents 
  • Analysis of manufacturer’s injury data 
  • Interviewing product users and potential users 
  • Observations and analysis of user-product interactions 
  • Developing and administering surveys and questionnaires 
  • Testing of the conspicuity and comprehension of safety information 
  • Historical analysis of trends in warning practices 
  • Evaluation of proposed alternative warnings 
  • Quantitative measurement of the effectiveness of warnings 
  • Addressing issues concerning “failure to warn” 
  • Assessing influence of advertisements on product user behavior 
  • Application of the scientific literature to warnings issues 
  • Assessment of impact of public safety campaigns 
  • Assessment of training programs on safety 
  • Assessment of the effect of enforcement of warnings 
  • Analysis of prior behavior and compliance with safety information