An Argument for Human-Centered Design
The importance of human-centered design and human factors engineering in product and packaging design is punctuated by the serious burn injury and death of young children in fires caused by the spilling of gasoline near a gas-fired hot water heater (Pediatric Burn Injuries & Gas Cans (medicinenet.com). These tragedies began to emerge after the introduction of blow-molded plastic gasoline cans, primarily beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the mid-2000s (Figure 1).
During this period, many children have died or were severely injured from burns as a result of:
(3) Ignition of flammable vapors from gasoline spills (Figure 2)
This problem continued until plastic gas cans began to be fitted with child-resistant closures (CRC) on all openings in the mid-2000s (Figure 2a). (Report on the Safety of Portable Fuel Containers (Gas Cans) (cpsc.gov))
The Fact-Profile of a Gas Can-related Burn Injury of a Child Under the Age of Five
Litigation files are filled with the accounts of fire and burn accidents. Although the specific facts related to the accidents vary, there is a strong common thread that links them:
- Homes in regions of the country that do not have basements and gas-fired hot water heaters are installed in a garage, carport, breezeway, or small rooms attached to the house, typically on a porch.
- Gas cans without a CRC are permanently stored or temporarily placed in a location that is reasonably close to the hot water heater (less than 10 feet).
- Emulating the use of the gas can by parent or guardian, the child removes the closure on the gasoline can or dispensing spout closure (Figure 3).
- Child attempts to pour from the can or inadvertently tips the can over after opening, resulting in a spill of liquid fuel onto the floor.
- The pool of gasoline spreads and flows towards a (non-elevated) hot water heater.
- The hot water heater burner ignites in normal operation to maintain temperature of the water in the tank igniting the flammable liquid, gasoline.
- If the child remained anywhere near the origin of the spill, they are ignited by the flames.
Litigation Files Reveal a Development Process Devoid of Contextual Research, Human-Centered Design and Human Factors Engineering (Experience of Clinton A. Haynes, Expert Witness)
Of the four major gasoline can manufacturers that produced blow-molded gasoline containers prior to about 2010, none had used any contextual research methodology to learn to how gasoline cans are used and stored in their real-world, everyday environment. Had these manufacturers conducted contextual inquiry investigations related to the use of gasoline cans in residential settings, they would have learned that their product development and realization process should have accounted for the prospect of unsupervised child access to cans not stored out-or-reach or otherwise secured, in locations near an ignition source.
The four foundational principles of contextual inquiry that would have helped gasoline can manufacturers save lives are:
- Focus – Plan for the inquiry, based on a clear understanding of your purpose
- Context – Go to the customer’s workplace and watch them do their own work
- Partnership – Talk to customers about their work (use of a product) and engage them in uncovering unarticulated aspects of work
- Interpretation – Develop a shared understanding with the customer about the aspects of work that matter
The results of gasoline can-focused contextual inquiry could have been used to define gasoline packaging requirements, improve the blow-molded package development process, learn what is important to users and customers, and just learn more about a new domain to inform future projects. (Contextual Inquiry | Usability Body of Knowledge (usabilitybok.org)
What Could Have Been…
Conducting such packaged-focused contextual inquiry investigations would likely have led the gas can manufacturing industry to the discovery of the Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1970, enacted by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, which was and remains the foundation for the development of Child Resistant Packaging in the United States (Poison Prevention Packaging Act | CPSC.gov).
Special packaging closures such as:
- push down and turn
- squeeze and turn
- align and pull
- ratchet-type mechanisms
and other child-resistant closures had already been developed. Adoption of the packaging performance requirements outlined in this CPSC document associated with the development of child-resistant closures when the plastic can was introduced would have saved many lives for the manufacturer’s designed products (Figure 4a,b).
Foreseeable Use, Foreseeable Misuse, and Avoidable
The activities and discipline of competent contextual research methods, human factors engineering, and human-centered design would have identified the injury fact-profile that has led to such tragic human losses. The history of injury associated with child access to gas cans needs to serve as a reminder of the consequences of developing products and packaging without an in-depth understanding of how and where they will be used.
- Clint Haynes, founder of the Cincinnati office of Stress Engineering Services, has steadily grown the Cincinnati practice area while introducing breakthrough capabilities. He has a specialized focus on areas of medical, outdoor, and product innovation.
- Jason Phillips, Group Creative Director, has more than 20 years of innovation and product development experience in consumer-packaged goods, durable products, human performance applications, and technology integration.
- Araya Amsalu, Group Human Factors and Systems Engineering Director, has more than 20 years of experience in engineering innovation, applying systems engineering and human factors engineering for product development of medical devices, automotive, and engineering software.