Instead of warnings

The kind and caring people of Starbucks don’t want me to scald myself with their coffee. So they have printed a warning on the lids of their take-away cups. CAUTION CONTENTS HOT. Apart from insulting their customers, this message is not very effective. It does not provide people with any clues about what is appropriate behaviour, apart from perhaps waiting, or to take the first sip cautiously. The warning probably protects Starbucks more than their clients.

Traditional safety efforts rely heavily on separating people and danger. But warnings or prohibitions are not very helpful when the task is exactly the opposite: to engage with the ‘danger’. Be it a hot liquid or cancer surgery.

Safety should be about helping people and organisations to do their jobs successfully. Not stopping them, constraining them, or making the task more difficult. Safety should be about boosting the capacity of people and organisation to make their own informed decisions as to what is appropriate behaviour in a specific situation – to give them the ability to adapt successfully.

Recently I saw a temperature sensitive LED light water faucet. When the water is cold, the faucet turns blue. Red when hot. And green in between. Sure, three colours is a bit boxy, but the principle is there: provide people with cues about the state of the world they are interacting with, facilitate the understanding of what is currently happening, then successful adaptations are more likely.

Cancer surgery is difficult because the spread of a cancer is hard to determine. However, using fluorescent markers, surgeons can make more precise incisions, and avoid inadvertent injuries to unaffected nerves and tissues. In the video below (16 minutes long, but well worth a watch) Quyen Nguyen explains color-coded surgery.

Perhaps it is time to ask Starbucks, or any of the other major coffee chains, to invest in research for a cup/lid made in temperature sensitive material. Or maybe it already exists somewhere!?


  1. Hans Houtman Reply

    Define “hot”……I like to drink my coffee warm but my wife then thinks I drink hot coffee. And a warning like this is a “very soft safety barrier” which will not function: will people read it before sipping the coffee…or after the first sip? So indeed the message is insulting. Besides: you did ask for coffee which usually is served “hot/warm”.
    The only reason is to prevent litigation based on the US system of litigation which might cost them a lot of money. Like the woman that dried her dog in the magnetron (she was probably hiding for ages in a cave) or the case of the woman that had her warm coffee spilled on her lap after buying it at the other big fast food chain.
    Maybe we should just not be in a hurry, buy a normal cup of coffee and take the time to drink it….. Another solution but also effective.

  2. Sue Milner Reply

    Ah, but will you pay the extra for the heat sensitive packaging? Afterall, it has taken people ages to accept the environmentally-friendly costs of biodegradable packaging. People complain about the cost of coffee; we are a fickle lot !

    And any solutions would need to be inclusive wouldn’t they? What about the colour blind population? A flashing light too, pehaps, or utilising the techniques used to check for colour blindness. And the blind? Sound or tactile as well. Costs are rising …. !

    As Hans says, this “safety message” is a result of US litigation. Get away from that behaviour and (some of) the bizarre safety warnings may disappear. Heaven forbid common sense prevails. I would not consider sueing anyone for burning my lip/mouth when I drink coffee. Sadly I do this a bit too often since I drink it black and very hot! That’s my problem/stupidity which I would not want to air in the forum of a public court !

    I think facilitating behavioural chance (and mindset) is the challenge.

  3. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

    I agree that many societies have developed rather ridiculous systems which treat people as little more than victims to dangers. And I believe people are getting tired of this, on many levels. “Instead” it would be nice to see companies, and legal systems, that aim at making it easier for people to make informed calls about appropriate behaviour, in a dynamic kind of way.

    But I agree, this too would come with various constraints and potentially marginalise certain groups. And there is a cost in adapting for the increasingly specific. For a global, diversity embracing company this would certainly be a draining. But isn’t a small step is still be better than no step?

    That being said, I’ve seen pizza delivery boxes with (cheap-looking?) stickers on them indicating temperature. Curiously the purpose of the sticker is not to warn about hot content, but rather to indicate quality of the delivery. Perhaps it is easier to invest when there is an assumed positive return on the investment.

  4. Les Henley Reply

    And unfortunatley Work Health and Safety Laws are being established to protect the ‘idiot’ (I use the term in its loose vernacular form rather than to denote those with congenital mental deficiencies) in the workplace. But even if we constrain all articles of plant, ensure every work process is free from risk and ensure all workplaces are free from hazards then we still have the ‘idiot’ and their behaviours to contend with.
    I still vividly remember when doing my (fitting & maching) apprenticeship, some 40 years ago, when one week at TAFE we were shown a video of a person getting long hair entangled in rotating machinery. The following week one of my peer apprentices came to TAFE with his head bandaged (you can guess why). This same person was witnessed by me and others the same year to ‘take a sip’ from the methylated spirits that were kept in the workshop for cleaning up marking blue. And on another occasion he set a fire in a wastepaper bin in order to cause the fire alarm to be activated.
    No amount of regulation, signage or associated action will protect these people from themselves.
    And the current regime of Workers Compensation (in NSW at least) enables them to injure themsleves by their own risk taking behaviours and still be paid at the employer’s expense.
    We have to work with these people in our worklaces and get them thinking differently, or find a suitable way of managing such people out. Risk taking may be acceptable in some environments, but when others are made to be resposnible and pay the proces for the risk taking behaviour of an individual in a workplace, risk taking should be contrained and people held accountable for unacceptable behaviours.

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