Dell Laptop Batteries
How safe is safe enough? This is the fundamental issue behind Dell’s recent recall of some 4 million laptop batteries. For those of you who’ve been on vacation: the problem is that a handful of Dell laptops have suddenly caught fire. As Dell puts it:
In cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other regulatory agencies, Dell is voluntarily recalling certain Dell-branded batteries with cells manufactured by Sony and offering free replacements for these batteries. Under rare conditions, it is possible for these batteries to overheat, which could pose a risk of fire.
Product recalls (usually undertaken as a matter of consumer safety) really involve two separate, but related, issues.
The first issue has to do with whether the product ought to be recalled at all, and that involves — first and foremost — an assessment of the degree of risk posed by the product. Risk is normally understood as having two components: probability (the likelihood that something bad will happen) and consequences (the badness of the bad thing that might happen). For product safety issues, this 2×2 calculation results in 4 basic kinds of risks:
- Low probability of minor injury.
- Low probability of major injury.
- High probability of minor injury.
- High probability of major injury.
(Since both probability and and severity of injury are matters of degree, this is obviously an idealization: the real world would have an infinite number of possible combinations. But this 4-part typology gives you the basic idea.)
Dell’s batteries presumably fall into one of the “low probability” categories, since a few fires out of many millions of batteries isn’t a lot. And presumably this falls somewhere between “minor” and “major” injury, depending largely on the circumstances in which the fires occur. If a laptop catches fire on your dining-room table, close to your kitchen fire-extinguisher, the harm done is likely to be small. If a laptop catches fire while unattended in an apartment building, or while aboard a commercial airliner, the harm done could be very serious.
The second ethical issue related to product recalls is timing. Just how quickly does a given company respond to indications that their product may be unsafe? The gold standard here was set by Johnson & Johnson in 1982, when that company responded incredibly quickly to indications that some small number of bottles of Tylenol had been tampered with. The problem here typically has to do with the amount of evidence available. Some companies have very good systems in place for collecting, aggregating, and analysing data related to problems with their products (and some — for example, pharma companies — are required to by law). Others are not so good.
Notice how issue #1 relates to issue #2. In some cases, waiting for “enough data” could mean waiting so long that lots of people get hurt. Then again, acting on too little information might be irresponsible, too.
How serious does a risk have to be (how many reports of what kinds of harms must a company know about) in order for it to be ethically appropriate to recall the product? There’s no simple answer to that. For many kinds of products (especially for complex ones like computers, pharmaceuticals, and automobiles), there’s always going to be some risk of failure, including failure causing harm to the user. Such products can likely never be “100%” safe (partly because extra safety typically comes at a price, a price inevitably borne by consumers). Should Dell have recalled 4 million batteries at the first whiff of smoke? Not likely: no one has been physically hurt by laptop fires (as far as I’ve heard), and Dell’s managers have a responsibility to shareholders and other stakeholders in the company not to spend money fixing trivial problems. Should Dell have waited longer? That’s hard to say. The public’s expectations with regard to product safety are constantly shifting, influencing (and being influenced by) court decisions. It may well be that Dell feels that it doesn’t have much reputational capital left to spend: the company’s recent woes, including serious criticisms of its customer service policies, may leave it little option but to take strong action, even if the actual risks from these batteries isn’t all that severe.
- Here’s Dell’s webpage about the battery recall.
- The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s press release, Dell Announces Recall….
- From BusinessWeek: Dell customers flock to replace notebook
- (See also my previous blog entry about Dell, ethics, and customer service.)
Products Liability and Safety: Cases and Materials, Fourth Edition
Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (by Ralph Nader)
The Ford Pinto Case: A Study in Applied Ethics, Business, and Technology
How Dell Does It
Direct from Dell: Strategies that Revolutionized an Industry