This Toaster is Hot

by Rob Sams on March 11, 2015 · 28 comments

in Risk Aversion,Rob Sams

This Toaster is Hot

Warning, please stop and “Take Five”!

Guest Post by Rob Sams – inspired by this “Hot Toaster” page 

imageBefore you read any further, I feel compelled to warn you that reading this article may be harmful for your health, it may even cause an injury. I have no idea how or why, but I’m so concerned for your health and safety, after all, it’s my number one priority, that I want to make sure I do everything I can, to protect you from injury.

If you have chosen to read on, you must be a risk taker, and now that I know that, I also know that you like to learn, and learning is something that is important for health and safety. More important I believe than safety than signs and ridiculous warnings like in the paragraph above.

It seems that everywhere you look these days there is a sign or notice warning about the dangers of life. For example I was walking in a side street in a busy Sydney suburb with a colleague just last week and we took this photo:


This was in the middle of a public street that was used by perhaps 50 or so people an hour during the day. As we walked, we had no idea of the potential dangers we faced. We could have knocked our leg on the tap or worse; we could have stopped in the middle of the street, got down on our knees and drank the water.

We were so grateful to the local Council. They had thankfully been very diligent in their risk assessment and placed a protective white barrier around the tap, and a very helpful sign which prevented us from even thinking about drinking the rainwater.

The irony of course is that we felt that the white barrier sticking out around the tap actually created a greater hazard than they tap itself, but I thought, at least the Council were able to fill out the “Control” section of their risk assessment form.

This reminded me another sign in the photo below that I saw on a construction site in Canberra earlier this year:


This was the site office for the construction site which was in the middle of a major sporting complex that was completely fenced off and locked. The site was being refurbished and only accessed by authorised people doing the construction. It was an in industrial area where there were no houses and no schools. After reading the sign, I was very vigilant and kept my eyes open for any pedestrians, children and animals all the time while I was on the site. I don’t know why I was being cautious about them, but I just knew I needed to keep an eye out for them.

I must admit though, I did struggle with the other safety instruction, walking at 1KPH was tough, there was at least three occasions that my site contact pulled me up and asked me to slow down, he said that I was walking at least 5KPH. He issued me with a formal warning that if I exceeded the speed limit one more time, I would be banned from the site. They take safety very seriously at that site.

These are just two examples, there are so many more. How about these classics:

  • “This Toaster is Hot” label on the all toasters in lunch rooms
  • “This Water is Hot” sign on the Zip water boiling system in the lunch room or;
  • The classic in the photo below from a well known fast food outlet below:


The prevalence of these types of signs, is so incredible, that a blog has been started ( so we can all keep up to date with these very important safety messages. How could we live our life safely if we don’t know these things?

I’m sure the day will come, it’s not far away, where toast will be banned at work, we will drink luke warm tea, and nail guns (see, gone!

We seem so driven by fear in modern society that our approach to safety seems to be to warn everyone of everything. Don’t take any risk, don’t leave any stone unturned, if there is a potential danger make sure we warn people. Signs, signs and more signs, the more the better!

I wonder whether some people in workplaces look at the “reasonably practical” requirements of modern day health and safety legislation and think, “well if we place warning signs around the place, we will be able to demonstrate that we did all we could”. Workplaces who take this approach need to think carefully about the impact of flooding employees with information and the limits of our bounded rationality (see –

It reminds me of a story by the team on the ABC show The Checkout (developed by the Chaser team). In one particular show (, they talk about the 24 pages of Terms and Conditions for iTunes. Does anyone really read through all 24 pages before clicking “I Agree”. If you did, do you really know what you have signed up for?

The danger of course with so many signs and safety warnings in our workplaces is that by trying to warn everyone of everything, we may actually warn no one of anything!

If we dumb down safety so much that people don’t take it seriously? Will the result be that they switch off? Worse still, will our warnings about what we should do to be safe become so ridiculous that they can’t be taken seriously? Will people become blinded to the signs? Maybe they will take notice of them the first time, but after that, will they fade into the background? Worse, if the signs are filled with ridiculous advice such as a toaster being hot, will this encourage people to not read any of our signs at all as they may feel belittled by our approach?

As an alternative, perhaps we should take a leaf out of the city of Port Macquarie on the mid North Coast of NSW. In main CBD area of Port Macquarie there are very few street signs. In the photo below, you will see no pedestrian crossings and no Stop signs.


(photo courtesy of Human Dymensions, see

I remember a recent trip to the area to see friends. We were walking with their young kids along the streets and became very alert to the traffic around us. We weren’t sure who had the right of way, should the car stop or should we? The end result was that we made eye contact with the driver of the car. By doing this, we communicated with each other about who would stop, and away we went.

Could the impact of having no or little street signs be that we were safer? Could it be that because there was nothing to guide us as to what was safe, we had to consciously stop and think about it? Could it be that drivers in the area drove just that bit slower because they couldn’t be sure if people were going to walk into their path or not?

I wonder if we took the same approach to warnings about safety in the workplace whether this would lead to the same sort of actions?

This is the quagmire faced by the modern day safety professional.

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Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.
  • Sheri Suckling

    Yes – I have lived in NZ since early 1982. My ex was a Dow Chemical expatriate in Midland, MI when I met him. I was working for Dow Corning Corp at the time – what a small world!
    You are welcome to email me at if you like. :-)

  • Dave Collins

    Hey James – if you whish to share your email here – no problem

  • James Parkinson

    Sheri I can relate to every single word of GM that you spoke of. My father and grandfather worked for Dow in Midland Michigan so I was raised in and around Tri-City. Before my father started with Dow he was just an average construction worker that also taught his family respect, manners and work ethic just to name a couple on the top of my head. I too knew many people that were on the GM train for many years and they just couldn’t believe it when the industry went the way it did. Thanks for sharing a little piece of your life history. Not sure where you are now for some reason New Zealand comes to mind not sure why. I live in Australia now and love it here. I am happy to share my email with you as I am sure there is much more in common. I just have to make sure its ok to publish my email address here with out it causing issues.

  • Sheri Suckling

    PS – Sadly, my dad passed away last year a few days short of his 84th birthday. His funeral celebrated a life that made a difference because he took responsibility for himself, his own experiences, and his ability to help others.

  • Sheri Suckling

    I grew up in Michigan – I was born in Flint, Michigan, which is the birthplace of General Motors. I saw at close quarters how people allowed their lives to be led by the ideal of doing less and getting more for it. Just watch Michael Moore’s original movie, “Roger and Me’ to see this side of the people of Flint, Michigan! Too many of my schoolmates only ever aspired to get a job at General Motors, thinking they would be set for life (some used to say that GM stood for the ‘Good Mother’, because GM’s employee benefits packages were so advantageous). You will see them in this film whining that since GM could no longer afford to carry such costs and moved their production facilities to Mexico to gain a more competitive financial position (Please note that I’m not suggesting this is entirely a good thing!), that GM should be responsible for retraining them and finding them new jobs! Whose life is it anyway?!?
    Although my father was a middle manager at GM’s Chevrolet V-8 Engine Plant in Flint, MI and retired at age 56 with 38 years of service (he couldn’t wait to get out of that place!), he always taught us kids that the world doesn’t owe us a living; we get from life according to what we put in. After his early retirement, he put his knowledge, skills and experience to work as a volunteer for his local Boy Scouts troop (45 years involved with Boy Scouts of America as a troop leader, merit badge counsellor, camp quartermaster, and general volunteer in the area office one day per week) and supported his church’s building committee. I would have to say he also very strongly shaped my ideas of what it means to be an American – that’s the part I am very proud of! 😉

  • James Parkinson

    Sheri well said and thank you for that I too grew up in the United States and seen many changes there along the lines of your message as well. I can also see it starting to happen here in Australia as well. Once again it is like so many of us have said, when is a person responsible for their own actions?
    What part of the USA did you grow up in if I may ask?

  • Sheri Suckling

    ‘Dumb signage’ can be traced directly back to the dumb people who exploited the litigious habits of the American public, making spurious claims that placed responsibility back on the shoulders of other people. Once enshrined in case law, the door is open for others to make similar claims in hopes of mining the pockets of large faceless corporations. I remember when I was at university discussing some of those claims – e.g, someone was awarded damages after plugging in a vacuum cleaner into 220v despite a warning to only connect to 110v because the warning did not include a description of consequences for doing so! A woman successfully sued for damages after an operation which left her bellybutton slightly off centre…..
    The result becomes a fear-based approach of trying to cover off legal liabilities, because so many people will use any excuse to lay blame on others in order to gain a financial advantage. Unfortunately, such actions have consequences for the wider public, including a general drift toward more restrictive laws and policies that erode the very concept of personal freedom that Americans prize so highly. Most have yet to realise that personal freedom is actually an expression of the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions.
    OK – end of rant and down off my soapbox now! I grew up in USA and there were a lot of positives from that, but today it’s no longer the kind of entity the Founding Fathers set out to create – sad but true! :-(

  • BobMc

    Hello @disqus_PTnPn1AJIi:disqus, my comment was not directed at warning signs, but to the issue of being served a food item hot enough to cause third-degree burns. The McDonald’s case was not frivolous (nor did you say that it was). However, I doubt that you want 180F coffee. Probably 130F would meet most people’s definition of ‘hot’.

    I’m probably mostly in agreement with this site’s apparent premise that most warning signs are unnecessary–for me at least, and you, too. Sorry for any confusion.

    Hot Water Causes Third Degree Burns…
    …in 1 second at 156º
    …in 2 seconds at 149º
    …in 5 seconds at 140º
    …in 15 seconds at 133º

  • James Parkinson

    True Dave am just happy to see it back and running. Its awesome to have a site like yours to learn and unlearn from thanks once again.

  • Dave Collins

    Classic case of when you make things too difficult then people take short cuts – I let my security controls slip cos it got too hard and expensive then a virus found its way in. Like at work when people need 3 different passwords to access the system – of course they will write them on a post-it note somewhere :-)

  • James Parkinson

    Yes you are correct BobMc in not knowing all the facts thank you for pointing this out. So by the facts that you pointed out does this mean that now the warning is on the cup no one else will get burned? I may have missed something in the original article but I am pretty sure it goes back to warning people with signage of what most of us would know when ordering hot coffee, or tell us that the surface of the toaster could be hot, The list could go on and on. As originally stated will he sign stop people from doing things or does it insult the intelligence of what we already know. Once again I think as humans we are responsible for are actions. Thank you once again for your feedback on my comment.

  • James Parkinson

    Thanks Dave and nothing to be sorry about it wasn’t anything that you could control. You have to love modern technology.

  • Dave Collins

    up and running now – sorry about that!

  • James Parkinson

    Dave is your blog site down for maintenance

  • Dave Collins

    And there have been many similar claims that were dismissed, for example, when the judge found that most consumers want their coffee to be hot regardless of the risk if spilled. The woman, in this particular case, was found to have contributed 20% to the injury – I wonder how much more people are aware of these risks now?

  • BobMc

    Apparently, you are unfamiliar with the facts of the case. The woman had third-degree burns, and needed multiple skin grafts, eight days in the hospital, and a further two years of medical therapy. She wanted McD to pay her medical bills–it refused. The jury awarded a few days of McD’s coffee revenues to the woman. McD had received numerous (~700) complaints about its coffee being way too hot, and people receiving serious scalds from it. The high temperatures allowed McD to use a cheaper coffee, as the high temp masked the taste.

  • James Parkinson

    Dave maybe both mate. Right now I am off to make a sign that tell the post person that my mail goes into the slot on the box. Just in case

  • Dave Collins

    i saw a coffee cup from Canada which said something like: “this cup contains great coffee – we don’t have to warn you its hot like some other countries do” – an attack on the US or a clever way to send the warning message?
    Dave Collins
    Telstra iphone

  • James Parkinson

    When I see articles about signs to warn us what will happen it always brings me back to the law suit in the United States at McDonalds where the lady spilled hot coffee in her lap. She got a big payout for this and they now put on the cups caution this contains hot liquid or something along that line. I know when I order a cup of coffee I really want it to be hot. If I spill it and it burns me who is to blame other then myself. Had the coffee been cold and she spilled it would she sue because it was cold?

  • Ray Lane

    You would have loved the signs on the power poles running down the middle of (very wide) Hannan Street, Kalgoorlie: “Drive around this pole.”

  • Dave Collins

    do you think that just another warning sign is the best way to address this risk?
    Dave Collins
    Telstra iphone

  • joaneisenstodt

    When I saw the subject line, I thought it would address a common occurrence in meetings esp in hotels: a toaster or two are put out for bkfst buffets, breaks, etc. Behind them, is a container with ice & in it, carafes of juice. To get the carafe, one must lift it over [already a problem for shorter ppl or ppl with disabilities using a mobility drvice] the plugged in & on toaster. That really is risky .. & there’s never a sign of caution.

  • Max Geyer

    Wallpaper is what most signs become. People are so flooded with information that they see very little of it and understand or relate to very little of what they do notice.

  • Dave Collins

    Brilliant example – thanks John

    Dave Collins
    Telstra iphone

  • John Wettstein
  • Rob Sams

    Hey Bruce – you are among a growing band of people in the safety trade who are frustrated with the ‘traditional’ approach to safety where the focus is treating people like idiots who know nothing. This approach frustrates me personally, as does any approach that is not about understanding how people make decisions and judgements. Cheers, Rob

  • Dave Collins

    Thanks for those links Bruce – crazy stuff!! Do they realize that putting up Do Not Climb signs can actually encourage people to climb?

  • Bruce

    Having beein in the Safety business for over 35 years, I have always been amused by some of the dumb safety signage. We know that the real reason for the sign is not someone’s safety, it is to prevent a law suilt.

    A group in Michigan actually gives out an award for the dumbest warning sign.
    Another is this site.

    I guess the one that bugs me the most is that in the community I live in (could be state wide), they have a metal 6 x 6 sign on every powerpole that says “Do Not Climb, Risk of Electricution”. So how much did the taxpayers put out to have someone put one of these signs on every single power pole? Oh, and they are metal poles wihout any real way of anyone climbing on them.

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