by Sterling Anthony, CPP, expert witness, packaging, warnings, patent infringement, cargo loading & securement, insurance claims
Packaging performs these functions: containment, protection, communication, and utility. Any given packaging attribute can be categorized under one of the functions. Because the functions are interrelated and the lines of demarcation overlap, a given packaging attribute can be categorized under more than one function.
Containment. Packaging restrains a thing or things within prescribed confines, UNTIL such restraints are intentionally removed.
The function is typically associated with the concept of contents: for example, the packaging contains the contents until the packaging is opened and the contents are removed.
A quite different example is lumber, with the packaging consisting of strapping. Here, the packaging keeps the lumber held together until such function is no longer needed.
Examples of the containment functions are of endless variety; however, what they have in common is, that, at some point, packaging and something else are combined into a packaged unit, and that combination should stay intact until intentionally separated.
Implicit in the foregoing comments is that the containment function be maintained throughout all reasonably foreseeable conditions, notably, those associated with handling, storage, transportation, and stocking——among other activities and environments.
When packaging fails the containment function, results can include leaks, spills, and things leaning, rolling, tumbling, and falling, easily leading to injuries and fatalities.
Protection. Protection and containment are so much interdependent as to be almost indistinguishable; however, there are some differences. Packaging provides protection to that which is packaged, against harmful forces. Said forces are shock, vibration, compression, temperature, and atmosphere——just to name the main ones.
The packaging must be imbued with the requisite strength and properties to provide protection. Depending on circumstances, multiple levels (primary, secondary, tertiary) of packaging are applied (see tutorial on levels of packaging).
When packaging fails the protection function, the impacts can range from rendering whatever has been packaged merely blemished, to rendering it unfit for intended purposes.
The protection function is not limited to that which is packaged. It must extend to people, namely, whoever reasonably can be expected to encounter the packaged entity. If, for example, the contents have the potential of inflicting harm, perhaps as a consequence of an inherent property, such as corrosiveness, the packaging must serve as a protective safeguard.
In instances in which the contents ordinarily are deemed safe but can be dangerous in the possession of particular persons——children are the quintessential example——packaging, through features such as child-resistant closures, must provide adequate protection.
Protection isn’t limited to individual things but also extend to collections or assemblies. Cargo that has loosened or otherwise been compromised, such that it cascades down onto the person opening the doors of a truck or intermodal container, for example, has not been protectively packaged. So too, when a packaged load weakens during handling or storage to a degree that it poses a safety hazard.
When packaging fails the protection function, the results can be damaged or loss goods, leading to injuries and fatalities, and both.
Communication. The communication function reflects the fact that packaging is a medium. Packaging communicates through its graphics, that is to say, through its labeling, including the printed word, symbols, icons, images, colors, and fonts. It also communicates through its structure, i.e. size, shape, and composition, while engaging any of, to all of, the five senses. Especially as applied to retail goods, packaging, through its communication function, is a potent marketing tool that can impart shelf-appeal and give a brand a competitive advantage.
But the communication function of packaging also is vital in the conveyance of warnings and safety instructions (hereafter, warnings). A wide variety of packaged goods pose hazards that might not be known to a reasonably alert and prudent user, thereby triggering a duty to warn on the part of the product marketer. Even when a user has some familiarity with the nature of a hazard, a warning can serve as a valuable reminder.
The easier determination, in the failure-to-warn sense, is when there’s a duty to warn but no warning is provided. The more difficult determination is when a supposed warning is not adequate, in that, an inadequate warning is tantamount to no warning at all.
An adequate warning abides by a variety of factors related to what the warning says (content) and the framework within which it’s presented (format). Specific to packaging, and in addition to content and format, other issues factor into adequacy. One is conspicuity, how easily the warning can be perceived. A warning must be prominently displayed, such that it stands out from the surrounding visual elements.
When packaging fails the warnings component of the communication function, the results can be an unreasonably dangerous product, leading to injuries and fatalities.
Utility. Packaging facilitates the interaction between people and what’s packaged; as such, the utility function is also referred to as the convenience function.
A feature that’s typically associated with utility is that of easy opening. As innocuous as that might sound, it can have a safety consequence, if an instrument (a knife?) is used and the instrument cuts fingers. Then again, there are types of packaging, such as clamshells, that can bear sharp edges that can cut all on their own.
A different example demonstrates the utility function on two levels. A corrugated box with die-cut slots for inserting one’s hands facilitates manual handling; however, how safely the handling can be performed is contingent on the location of the slots and the construction of the box. By contrast, unitizing dozens of those boxes on a pallet facilitates mechanical handling; however, how safely the handling can be performed is contingent on how solidly the unit has been assembled, as to pallet pattern, strapping, and stretch-wrapping.
When packaging fails the utility function, the results are inconveniences as to time and effort, at minimum, and injuries and fatalities, at most.
In summary, packaging performs only a handful of functions; nonetheless, they can take on a wide variety of complexities that have a direct impact on safety. As established, failure in any function can result in injuries and fatalities. When that happens, litigation is mostly a foregone conclusion, taking such forms as product liability, personal injury, failure-to-warn, and insurance claims.
Sterling Anthony, CPP, is a consultant to the industrial, institutional, and government sectors and an expert to the legal community. He is a former manager at Fortune 100 companies and a former instructor at two major universities. His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-Box 43176, Detroit, MI 48243; (office) 313-531-1875; (cell) 313-623-0522; (fax) 313-531-1972; thepackagingexpertwitness@gmail; www.thepackagingexpertwitness.com