Can I be sued?

June 16, 2005
I would like to ask you about my liability as a design engineer in the event my company is sued after an accident.

I work in Malaysia and my employer manufactures a machine for in-home use. Some of the machines I've designed could pose hazards to users. Of course, we try to design the machine to be as safe as possible, but what will be my position if worse comes to worse?

Giovanni P.

I can only talk about my knowledge and experience in the U.S.A. Also, I am talking from the viewpoint of an engineer, and from experience as an expert witness in product-liability lawsuits. For a more detailed and definitive answer to your "can I be sued" question, you should talk to a lawyer.

Here in the U.S., a designer working for a manufacturing company does not have to worry about being sued for a defective product, because they are working for an employer who controls their activities and there are many people involved in the design of the product.

Also, most employees do not have enough assets to make it worthwhile for an attorney to come after them.

I would highly recommend that all of your company's products undergo the scrutiny of a hazard-analysis study. Part of any well-planned hazard analysis looks at normal use, foreseeable misuse, who the users are, and the environment in which the product will foreseeably be used. Keep reading MACHINE DESIGN, because my column will be discussing hazard-analysis studies.

For the first time in my 18-year career, I find myself at odds with our legal people who think a design concept should proceed. I believe it is not as safe as they do. Usually, I am at odds trying to convince them that a design is safe.

I have gone through the proactive hazardanalysis process and I believe we are exposing ourselves to a different set of safety hazards with our current project. I have been trying to get my point across, but have been being met with resistance from those who would like to proceed. I suspect those same people are lacking the design skills to adequately evaluate the hazards.

I have gone as far as to present some alternate ways to address my safety concerns but the powers that be have tunnel vision on the concept. Sooner or later they will see the light, or I will likely excuse myself from this effort.

To top it off, a leading manufacturer in this area has also indicated it has some serious reservations about using the approach we are now considering.

— Garret O.

If your hazard analysis has identified safety hazards that bother you, and you cannot design out or guard against the hazards that you have identified, then you are in a difficult position.

If you are trying to do a selling job to people who are not very technically sophisticated, you might want to consider making a model of the system and demonstrating the hazards that have you concerned. In the same vein, you may want to demonstrate how you are safeguarding people in the vicinity of the equipment you are replacing.

You have a difficult selling job in front of you, and I do not envy your position. If the concern these people have is to get around the OSHA regulations, you may want to get someone from the consulting arm of OSHA to attend a meeting at your site to explain the OSHA regulations addressing this area, and explain that they will be trading one set of OSHA regulations for another set of OSHA regulations. Remember, the people in the consulting arm of OSHA are not allowed to interact with the people in the enforcing arm of OSHA.

is a registered professional engineer and a Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at [email protected].

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