Whether you're buying a flat-pack cot or a food processor, it's vital that you read the assembly and operation instructions to avoid misuse, accidents and even death.
While we're all guilty of occasionally tossing aside that little black and white manual, you should always take the time to read it.
Even if you do follow the instructions, remember that not everything you buy in Australia is safe. Only a small number of products are subject to mandatory safety standards (see Not all products sold in Australia are safe, below).
This isn't an exhaustive list, but here are six products that are potentially dangerous if you don't follow the instructions.
Blenders should never be used to mix hot liquids.
1. Blenders and food processors
Almost every kitchen appliance (especially those with sharp blades) can pose a hazard if used incorrectly. But for the most part, common sense and a healthy dose of caution can keep you safe.
That said, when it comes to blenders and all-in-one food processors, the instructions contain some pretty important information you may not be aware of.
According to CHOICE household product expert Kim Gilmour, people who skip the instructions might not realise that blenders should never be used to mix hot liquids. Nor should all-in-one kitchen machines ever be used on full speed when mixing liquids over 70°C.
"If a blender is used incorrectly it could cause hand injury from the blades, or burns if hot liquid is used," says Kim.
But she also warns that if a product has safety flaws, reading the instructions may not be enough to avoid injury.
"In the case of the Thermomix TM31, there was a faulty seal which the company didn't inform regulators or consumers about soon enough, so even though consumers did follow the instructions, they were injured," she says.
Manuals for baby walkers say to keep the child in view at all times.
2. Baby products
Babies and young children often interact with products in unexpected ways, so hazards can be hard to predict.
The warnings and instructions on baby products are important in helping parents anticipate and prevent accidents. For example, warnings on baby walkers tell carers to block stairs, keep hot liquids and heaters out of reach and keep the child in view. Manuals for baby rockers usually say they should never be used without parental supervision or as a sleep surface.
Our children's product expert Antonio Bonacruz says it's particularly important that parents thoroughly read and follow the assembly instructions for cots to avoid making a mistake that could create hazards on an otherwise well-designed, safe product.
"When assembling a cot yourself, it's possible to install parts upside down or use the wrong component, which can lead to potentially dangerous situations,'' Antonio says.
"For example, if you install the mattress base upside down, it could make the cot too shallow, creating a fall risk. Or if you use the wrong screws to install the side or the base, it could affect the strength of the cot, causing it to collapse under force."
But while he believes parents need to be careful with these products, he also says many manufacturers aren't doing enough to ensure their products are safe.
"Flat packs and assembly kits create more space for danger, putting the responsibility for safe construction back on the consumer," he says.
"Some products are well-designed so it's not possible to construct them incorrectly, but there are some that allow for potentially dangerous construction."
New research has found that recalls of children's products in Australia rose by 88% between 2011 and 2017. Of the 652 potentially deadly items that were recalled, 62% failed to comply with mandatory safety standards.
Everyone needs to take action to prevent toppling furniture, including people who rent their homes.
Toppling furniture and TVs send about 50 Australians to hospital every week, and have killed at least 22 children under the age of nine since 2001.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is currently working with retailers to ensure they supply proper anchoring devices and include warning labels on products that are prone to toppling.
Always check for warning labels and read your furniture instructions for any advice on reducing the risk of toppling. If you have young children, consider buying and installing wall anchors for all potentially unstable furniture, whether the instructions recommend them or not.
Toppling furniture and TVs have killed at least 22 children under the age of nine since 2001
Kim Gilmour says it's important that everyone takes action to prevent toppling furniture, including people who rent their homes.
"If you're renting, you'll need permission from your landlord to drill holes into the wall," she says. "This can be a pain, but if you explain why it's necessary, it's reasonable for landlords to agree. Clarify that you'll repair any damage when the tenancy ends, and ensure you get agreement in writing."
When it comes to flat-pack furniture, stable construction depends on following the instructions carefully. An Ikea change table/chest of drawers was recently recalled due to the risk that its foldable part could come loose, causing children to fall off the change table if the safety locking fittings weren't used according to the assembly instructions.
Always fully unwind the cord before use.
4. Extension cables
Extension cables are so commonplace it's easy to forget that they carry serious risks of electrocution or fire if they're used incorrectly.
According to our digital home test coordinator Scott O'Keefe, while not all extension cords come with a manual, they usually have a tag or sticker with basic safety instructions that everyone should read.
Most importantly, they advise fully unwinding the cord before use and avoiding multiple extension cords plugged into each other.
"A coiled extension cord can become very hot and start a fire, while using more than one extension cord can prevent the inbuilt safety mechanisms of your fuse box or meter box from functioning properly, allowing faulty products to remain electrically charged and possibly cause electrocution," warns Scott.
You should also read the instructions on products you plan to plug into an extension cord, as some advise only plugging them directly into the wall.
Scott says, "Consult the product manual, but as a rule of thumb it's best to avoid using an extension cord with anything that produces heat or is likely to draw a lot of power, like ovens or portable air conditioners."
Wheat bags and heat packs have caused nine house fires in NSW since January 2018.
5. Wheat bags
Used correctly, wheat bags are a gentle way to warm the body. But according to Kim Gilmour, failure to follow the manufacturer's instructions can lead to burns and fires.
"It's very important that people use wheat bags correctly,'' she says. "As well as reading the instructions, people should ensure that their microwave is set to heat the bag for the correct time, they should keep the bag out of direct sunlight and never use one to warm a bed."
A voluntary safety standard for wheat bags was introduced in 2016 after an elderly woman died when a wheat bag placed in her bed ignited and caused her house to catch fire. But wheat bags and heat packs continue to pose a risk – they've caused nine house fires in NSW alone since January 2018.
Wheat bag instructions usually say they shouldn't be used as bed warmers because of the risk of fire. Overheating or reheating a bag that hasn't fully cooled can also result in burns or fire, so it's important to follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully.
About 3300 people were hospitalised over a one-year period as a result of DIY injuries.
6. Tools and ladders
It may seem obvious to say you should consult the instructions before attempting to operate tools and machinery, but the high rate of DIY injuries in Australia suggests many people don't.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, about 3300 people aged 15 or older were hospitalised across the country over a one-year period as a result of DIY injuries. A 1995 report (which is still used as a reference to help prevent injuries) from Monash University's Accident Research Centre found that non-compliance with safety rules was the most frequent single cause of DIY injuries. The most common injuries are caused by:
- grinders – metal and dust entering the eyes
- lawn mowers – cuts to fingers and legs
- ladders – falls causing fractures of ribs and wrists
- power saws – cuts to fingers and hands
- welding equipment – flash burns and foreign bodies in eyes.
Many of these injuries can be avoided by reading and following operating and safety instructions. These include recommendations on the use of personal protective equipment (such as goggles and gloves), guidelines on appropriate use, and general safety precautions.
A Monash University report found that non-compliance with safety rules was the most frequent single cause of DIY injuries
According to our tool expert Chris Barnes, you should read the instructions for power tools and machinery, even if you're familiar with that type of product.
"Some tools may operate differently from the ones you're used to and the instructions can also be a useful reminder to take the necessary precautions, such as using a plug-in safety switch for corded power tools, and to wear protective gear such as safety glasses," he says.
Not all products sold in Australia are safe
Some people think reading the instructions isn't important because products sold in Australia must be safe.
But the reality is mandatory safety standards only apply to a small number of products in Australia. Whereas countries including the UK have general safety provision laws that state that businesses cannot supply a product unless it's safe, there's no such law in Australia.
But even if a product has been specially designed to comply with mandatory safety standards, this doesn't mean there's no need to read the manual. For products to be safe, they must be correctly assembled and the instructions followed. In fact, many Australian Safety Standards include specific requirements and warnings that must be included with products to ensure they're used safely.
Why don't people read instructions?
A 2016 Australian study into how users relate to manuals found that most people don't read instructions, and that more educated people and younger people are even less likely to do so.
According to the study, reading manuals caused annoyance and negative emotions. But delving a little deeper, the authors note that "not only did [people] not want to use the manual, they did not want to need to use the manual, they wanted the interface to be self-explanatory."
We dislike manuals so much that if we can work out how to use a product without them, we will
Other researchers have also suggested that most people prefer to get stuck in and try things out, only referring to a manual when they encounter an issue.
This may explain why accidents that could have been prevented by reading instructions continue to happen – we dislike manuals so much that if we can work out how to use a product without them, we will. This may be a harmless approach when it comes to low-risk products such as computer programs or digital cameras, but it seems many of us are missing important safety information in manuals.
Some people prefer to get stuck in, and only refer to a manual when they encounter an issue.
According to Antonio Bonacruz, even if you don't take the time to read the entire manual, you should at least give it a quick thumb-through to make sure you don't miss important safety information.
"While all manuals are different, safety warnings are usually formatted to stand out from general instructions and should be easy to locate, while some products (especially babies' and children's products) are required to display important safety warnings on the product itself," he says.
One study into home electrical equipment set-up found that people who remained calm during their device set-up were more likely to read instructions. So if you've just bought something, why not take a few deep breaths, make a cup of tea and sit down with your manual for a few minutes to make sure you don't miss anything important.
Other reasons to read the instructions
- Discover extra features and capabilities that your product has.
- Find cleaning and maintenance tips that could increase your product's life.
- Prevent breakage or damage that the warranty doesn't cover.
- Save time you might have wasted in a trial and error process, especially when the product needs to be assembled.