Should Disney have warned explicitly about alligators?

Boy's body found after alligator attack
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Story highlights

  • Gerald Goldhaber: 2 horrifying incidents of children in peril near animals raise questions about adequacy of safety warnings
  • Goldhaber: Especially in summer, recreation areas. parents must ensure safety info is in place and warnings heeded

Gerald Goldhaber is an expert in warnings and safety communications who, since 1978, has evaluated and designed product safety information and warnings for top corporations in the United States and has published widely on the human communication process. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) Once again, our nation is shocked by a horrifying story of a toddler placed, quite accidentally, in peril of an attack from an animal.

In the most recent instance, the outcome was unspeakably sad: Tuesday night a toddler who had waded into the water of a man-made Disney lagoon in Orlando was, witnesses said, grabbed without warning by an alligator and dragged underwater to his death, as his father tried desperately to save him.
    Just three weeks ago, the world saw video of a 4-year-old who had fallen about 10 feet into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, forcing zookeepers to kill a 17-year old gorilla named Harambe in a successful effort to save the boy's life.
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    Both events raise serious questions about not only the safety of recreational activities in proximity to animals, but also the effectiveness of warning and safety information intended to prevent such tragedies.
    In the alligator attack, were the warning signs posted by Disney near the lagoon adequate? Could Disney have used barriers to prevent young children from entering the lagoon? What other safety and warning steps could Disney have taken?
    I will leave it to the lawyers to hash out responsibility in this tragedy, and instead limit my remarks here to the crucial issue of warnings and safety information, a field I have worked in for almost 40 years as a researcher, author, consultant and a testifying expert witness. Many of my clients have included theme parks and recreational facilities.
    Most of us think of warnings simply as product signs and labels, but they can take many other forms, such as safety briefings given, for example, on cruise ships; posted signs about height and weight limits for selected amusement park rides; oral warnings from amusement park attendants about who can access a ride and how to do so safely; signs about "No Diving" at swimming pools (injuries can lead to paralysis); and physical barriers and guards to prevent people from accessing dangerous locations.
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    In the alligator incident, Disney provided warning signs, which read "No Swimming" and were accompanied by a pictograph with a line drawn through a person swimming. But an argument could be made that the sign needed the word "Danger," along with more information about the potential hazard, unlikely as it was, that "Alligators May Be in Water." As a matter of utmost precaution, since alligators are also pretty fast on land, warning signs, such as "Danger: Beware of Alligators" might make sense in strategic locations, especially where children may be playing.
    (Last year in Queensland, Australia, a crocodile attacked a golfer who was retrieving his ball from a water trap. This took place at a course where several warning signs were posted that read: "Warning: Crocodiles inhabit this area; attacks may cause injury or death.")
    The logic of such signage is that while Disney and everyone else knows that Florida has more than a million alligators, not many people know they may slip into areas where they are not expected. Rising sea level and increased development, according to a recent study by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, are forcing wildlife, including alligators, to migrate toward human-populated areas, where they may be more likely to interact with people.
    In the field of safety and warnings, we call this a "hidden hazard," meaning that in the absence of safety information that overtly explains the risk, the public is not likely to be aware of such dangers.
    A family from Nebraska could hardly be expected to know about the migration habits of alligators. Disney, on the other hand, could argue correctly that, as noted by Florida law enforcement officials, this lagoon has existed for 45 years without a single alligator attack.
    In fact, nobody else was in the water at the time the boy entered, supporting Disney's argument that the "No Swimming" signs were adequate. It is important to remember that, given Disney's primary mission as a family vacation destination, these signs are largely intended for parents who are responsible for the supervision of their children. The parents, on the other hand, could easily argue that a "No Swimming" sign does not normally raise expectations of an alligator lurking in the water seeking prey.
    Still, it could be argued from a warnings standpoint, that Disney either knew or should have known and have addressed even the unlikely possibility of an alligator attack, despite none having occurred in nearly half a century.
    But in fact, there is precedent for corporations offering a warning about hazards even before those hazards resulted in wide reports of injuries or deaths: Some automobile companies began to put voluntary airbag warnings about placing children in the back seat prior to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration requiring such warnings in 1996 and just as the first child casualties were being reported from impact with the airbag when seated in the front seat.
    What might Disney have done differently? Perhaps the company could have provided written safety information or a short oral briefing upon check-in to its resort warning of the possibility of alligator encounters, both on land and in water. But again, the contents of such warnings should match the realities of potential hazards and take in the role parents must play in the proper supervision of their children.
    As a result of these two episodes with a gorilla and an alligator, any zoo, theme park or recreational/amusement outlet would be wise to assess any and all hazards, some obvious and some less so or "hidden," and determine if warnings about these hazards are presented in a conspicuous way such that their customers would be likely to see, read or hear them before encountering the hazard.
    And again, while it is Disney's responsibility to provide necessary safety information to families, it is the parents' responsibility to implement it. A proper safety environment for any recreational activity, especially involving small children, must involve such a joint effort.
    Parents must closely supervise their children, be extremely observant and vigilant at all times and freely ask attendants questions about every ride they will be using or attraction they will be visiting: questions about the risk of injury, the history of any serious injuries at the facility and what precautions the attendants recommend they take.
    Only then can we look forward to a safer summer of fun with a reduction in serious harm to those we love.