Warning labels on products mandatory

Pushpa Girimaji
Pushpa Girimaji

SOME products require mandatory warning labelling for their safe use, and it is obviously the responsibility of the manufacturers to ensure this. In fact, in India, given the large percentage of illiterate customers, manufacturers should also resort to pictorial warning labels, and such labels should be bold enough to be noticed without fail and easy to comprehend.

Unfortunately, not every manufacturer realises this responsibility. Take the gas geysers, for example. If installed in poorly ventilated or closed bathrooms, these LPG-based geysers can cause death due to carbon monoxide accumulation. So every gas geyser should carry a warning, explaining why the entire unit should be installed outside the bathroom and in a well-ventilated area. By not providing that warning, manufacturers have been responsible for many sudden deaths in bathrooms.

In countries that have strong consumer safety laws, such irresponsible manufacturers are forced to do what is necessary to ensure the safety of the consumers. Either the products are withdrawn, or the manufacturers are forced to issue adequate usage warning. In the US, for example, following such deaths from portable generators in winter months, the consumer product safety commission made it mandatory for them to carry a warning in big, bold, red letters, saying that the carbon monoxide emitted by the generators are quick, silent killers and, therefore, they should never be kept indoors, not even near windows and doors from where the deadly gas can enter the house. Unfortunately in India, even though the Consumer Protection Act gives people the right to be protected from unsafe products and services, there is no mechanism to ensure this. However, a recent order of the consumer court should wake up manufacturers to their responsibility towards ensuring the safe use of their products through proper warning labels and education.

The clear message from the order is that those who fail to realise this responsibility will have to pay for the consequences. In this particular case, filed by a cooperative housing society, the main allegation against a company manufacturing waterproofing chemicals was that it did not issue any directions, or warnings, about the highly inflammable nature of the material. As a direct result, three labourers received burn injuries and had to be hospitalised. The housing colony bought the material to waterproof its overhead water tank, and employed three labourers. Since the inside of the tank was dark, a halogen bulb was used to carry out the work.

Even as the work was in progress, the halogen bulb suddenly exploded and there was a fire in the tank, injuring the workers. Subsequently, the housing society came to know from the forensic laboratory which tested the waterproofing product that it contained highly inflammable solvents. Blaming the manufacturer and the retailer for not issuing any pamphlet or literature along with the bill on the inflammable nature of the chemical, and not even providing a safety warning on the container, the housing colony sought compensation for the workers through the court.

Refuting the allegation, the manufacturer argued that (a) the product was not meant for use in water tanks; (b) the consumer was given the safety literature along with the bill, but he failed to educate the workers; and (c) the container carried a warning. However, on examining the container, the court found that the chemical, packed in 2008, carried warning labels. It said: "Being inflammable, work in well-ventilated areas. Do not smoke, do not use open flames, naked lights, etc while coating." This warning, however, was missing in the old tins used at the time of the accident in 2002.

The manufacturer and the retailer also could not prove that they had provided any warning literature along with the bill, when the housing society bought it. On the basis of this, the apex court upheld the verdict of the lower courts, which had directed the manufacturer to pay the medical bills of the three labourers, make good the loss of earnings during the time they were in the hospital, and also pay them Rs 25,000 each for the mental trauma suffered.

This order of the apex court should force manufacturers and retailers to pay more attention to consumer safety (Chemisol Adhesive Pvt Ltd and Ors vs Shri Dhanaji Shankar Dalvi and Ors, Revision Petition NO 3050 of 2009, decided on March 29,2010).