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Safety gone mad

Updated: May 6

We bought a sizeable jar of olives from Waitrose the other day. There’s nothing unusual or exciting about that. However, opening it proved a problem. We’ve never struggled opening jars of any kind – ever. But opening this jar seemed impossible. We finally succeeded using a gripper device that we happened to have in the kitchen drawer. Even with that it was a struggle. On top of the lid it said “DON’T USE IF SAFETY BUTTON CAN BE PUSHED DOWN”.


The next day a friend of ours visited holding a jar of pickles she had bought at Marks & Spencer. It had the same legend on the lid. She had tried in vain with members of her family but they couldn’t open it . Again, it was an epic wrestling match to remove the lid.


What is going on? Why are Waitrose and M&S, both with a large contingent of elderly customers, putting jars on their shelves which a bloke in the prime of his life can hardly open? Have we missed something? Have there been cases of people entering stores and squirting strychnine into the jars? Have the old screw top jars been failing in their thousands to keep the contents fresh? What on earth possesses a company to install a level of safety that causes stress and could result in injury if, in their frustration, customers attempt to open them with a hammer and chisel.


This reminds us of a project we carried out some years ago for a large construction company. The CEO of the company had a bee in his bonnet about the safety barriers they erect when digging a hole. These orange plastic barriers have a couple of feet that swivel to stop it blowing over and that swivel back when in transit. The CEO was of the belief that the feet could be a trip hazard. He wanted a survey of barriers throughout the world leading to a newly designed barrier that would eliminate any possibility of a hazard. We asked what evidence there was of people tripping over the extended feet. Our client did not like the question and explained that although there were no accidents yet, it was an accident waiting to happen. On completion of the project the new design was never made as the costs of manufacturing simply weren’t justified. We know we benefited from his safety neurosis but it seemed commonsense gone mad.


Let's return to the jars of olives and pickles. Why has a perfectly acceptable screw top system been replaced by something which is nearly impossible to open? It could be that somebody somewhere thought it was a good idea - or possibly it saves money in the manufacturing process. Of course safety is paramount. Who would say otherwise? But when people advocate for more safety, it gets nodded through because to deny it would appear flippant or irresponsible.


Drive down any road and look at the road signs. You will be shocked how many there are and the crazy volume of them de-sensitize us to signs in general. This has happened because at various times someone will have suggested a sign is needed to warn of falling rocks or deer crossing the road even though no one has ever seen them. Once there they remain, anesthetizing us to other signs that maybe should be our focus. It’s the same on office walls. They get cluttered with so many notices people just don’t read them.


Don’t get us wrong; safety is a crucial concern. But please can those whose responsibility is designing new lids for jars of preserves ask the question “Will it be an improvement for the customer?”.


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