Professional ethics and the Lessons of ValuJet 592

Subject: Professional ethics and the Lessons of ValuJet 592
From: Penny Staples <pstaples -at- AIRWIRE -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 29 May 1998 12:20:18 -0500

I've been working on labels for a product lately, so I've been giving this
situation quite a bit of thought. I found the Valujet article to be quite
thought-provoking, because my company is working on a product has the
potential to cause physical injury, if misused. It's *very* unlikely to
happen, but it could happen. So I've been thinking about how to handle this
in the documentation.

Marketing people tend to want to downplay the potential hazards of a
product. Legal people want to make sure that all necessary regulations are
being followed and that the company won't be sued. So there's all sorts of
regulatory and other legal verbiage that goes onto the product. But it's
legal stuff that most people never read, so it goes onto a small label in
tiny print. There are hazard warnings there too (in three languages), but
they are hidden in 5 point type. The marketing people are happy, because
there are no obvious dangers to make potential customers nervous. And the
legal people are satisfied because if something did happen, we can point to
the product and say "See, it was clearly labelled."

To my mind, just being covered "legally" isn't good enough. We also have an
ethical responsibility. What those oxygen canisters needed (and the
instructions for disposing of them) was some kind of clear warning on a
label big enough to read. Something on the order of "DANGER: These devices
can cause explosions and fires" (accompanied by an explosion symbol of some
kind). Maybe no one would have paid attention, and the accident might still
have happened, but it seems to me that if the dangers had been explained
more clearly in the documentation, there'd have been a better chance that
someone would notice.

I'm thinking of adding a section to our manual called "Potential Hazards",
where we can describe potential hazards honestly.

Penny Staples
pstaples -at- airwire -dot- com

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