Recently, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a statement warning Midwestern residents of “deadly hazards that arise after the flood waters recede.”Much of the CPSC’s post-flood advice was relatively predictable: water-damaged goods can grow microorganisms that make you ill, water-damaged appliances are shock and fire hazards, wet medicine should be considered contaminated, and children can drown in even the smallest amount of water. Somewhat surprisingly, though, a full half of the announcement was dedicated to a different sort of hazard: the portable generator.
The safety issue is not the generators themselves, but rather how they are used.
According to the CPSC, 50 people die each year due to generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning, and many of those deaths coincide with power outages after major storms. Safe and proper use generally adheres to the following guidelines:
- Generators should never be used indoors. “Indoors” here is applied liberally. Garages, sheds, and houses with all the windows open and fans on are still not safe. Even being outside a window can cause carbon monoxide buildup inside. If you’re not completely outdoors, you shouldn’t be using a generator.
- Be mindful of electrical matters. Use grounded heavy duty extension cords intended for outdoor use, and don’t plug your generator into a receptacle outlet.Generators are electrocution and fire hazards when they get wet, so don’t use them if it’s rainy.
- Put health and safety first. Carbon monoxide is highly toxic, so if you feel light headed, seek fresh air before it gets worse. More severe poisoning causes damage to the nervous system and heart, and then death.
Providing reminders such as these is important. It helps keep families safe, and it is very much a part of what the Consumer Product Safety Commission is supposed to do.
But in this and so many other situations, a much shorter list of safety precautions would suffice:
- Use only as directed.
Of course, companies that manufacture portable generators know the machines produce carbon monoxide and do nothing to hide this fact. They are well aware of their own liability if they do not make the risk clear to consumers, so rampant warnings on packaging and instructions are nearly guaranteed. In fact, all generators manufactured after May 14, 2007 come affixed with a bright red danger label that reads “Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES.” Yet 50 people per year are killed by disobeying this bold warning.
Simply reading and heeding the instructions on the products that we buy would prevent literally thousands of injuries and deaths annually. People are hospitalized all the time because they ignore instructions accompanying appliances, medicines, power tools, and other products. But what many people do not realize is that by failing to follow the instructions, they not only put themselves at physical risk. They may be also sacrificing their legal protection for when something goes wrong.
If you ignore warnings, tamper with a product, or use it for something other than its instructions indicate, you are essentially releasing the manufacturer from liability.
So if the product causes injury or damage, it will be very hard to prove whether you or the manufacturer caused it to happen, and there may be little or nothing you can do about it. As if the risk of injury or death weren’t enough, imagine your house burning to the ground because an appliance that you left unattended ignited in flame. But because this was cautioned against in the instructions, there will be no financial compensation from the manufacturer.
That said, companies that sell goods to consumers are always obligated to provide clear and complete instructions, including warnings about any potential hazards that could foreseeably arise from use of the product. Hundreds of lawsuits are entered each year because companies were negligent in their design or manufacturing, and consumers had no warning that a product would bring harm to their family and home. These lawsuits help families recover compensation for their injuries, but they are also a part of the refining process, holding corporations responsible for the consequences of their actions.
Ultimately, products that injure consumers are in no one’s best interest.
Consumer safety needs to be a joint effort of manufacturers, distributors, government regulators, and consumers themselves. But if generators that produce highly toxic gas are still being used indoors, killing 50 people a year, we still have a long way to go. Creating a safer consumer environment will take more stringent regulation, more consumer awareness, and harsher consequences for companies that put buyers at risk.