While they may seem like simple tools, signs are an important part of a safe workplace. They're a method of visual communication that can help you achieve a handful of key objectives:

  • Remind workers of potential hazards and how to avoid them
  • Direct workers to emergency equipment
  • Direct workers to safety in an emergency
  • Reinforce safety training programs
  • Inform workers of security and limited access policies

There is a broad range of safety signs, encompassing everything from caution, warning, and danger signs to less obvious ones like traffic control, security, and prohibition signs. All of them play important roles in keeping workers safe.

(Learn How to Create a Safe Work Zone Using Maintenance of Traffic.)

Understanding Safety Sign Standards

In the United States, these signs are regulated by OSHA 1910.145 standard and the ANSI Z535 series.

In 2013, OSHA integrated ANSI signage standards into its regulations, revamping its out-of-date designs in favor of those that are more aligned with current best practices. Previously, OSHA’s signs depended on language to convey its message and identified only the hazard, not its consequences or how to avoid it. ANSI’s standards, on the other hand, were more graphic, offered more content, and were more effective at conveying information visually.

OSHA's reference to ANSI standards shows its support for these newer designs. Moreover, signs that comply with ANSI standards go beyond satisfying regulatory requirements and actually become a key part of an organization’s safety and risk communication program.

(See Know the Code: Using the NFPA's Fire Diamond to Assess Hazards to learn more.)

Key Points to Remember About Safety Signs

There are hundreds of different safety signs out there. And while it’s a tall order to try to remember the specifics of each one, there are some general (and important) points that you should be aware of.

1. The Colors Have Meaning

Sign colors aren’t chosen randomly. Rather, they're specified by governing safety bodies.

Just like we all understand that a red octagon with a white border and white wording means "stop," safety signs are also designed to be universally recognizable:

  • Danger: black, white, and red
  • Caution: yellow background and black panel with yellow letters or pictographs
  • Mandatory instruction: blue with white letters or pictographs
  • Safety instruction: white background and green panel with green letters or pictographs

2. Many Signs Contain Pictographs Instead of Words

You may have noticed that the majority of safety signs contain pictographs rather than words. This is because safety signage is designed to be universal, meaning that workers can understand the instructions or warning no matter their language proficiency.

In some cases, text is included on a supplementary board. This is permissible as long as it doesn't impact the effectiveness of the main sign.

(Learn more in Safety Symbols and Their Meanings.)

3. Beware of Sign Clutter

Too many safety signs isn’t a good thing, and multiple signs posted in the same location can result in confusion or indifference on the part of workers.

If your organization has sign clutter, it’s best to review the signs to determine which ones are no longer necessary and whether some can be combined. Always aim to eliminate unnecessary messaging and keep things simple.

4. The Signal Word Must Match the Risk Level

Too often, people associate safety signs with the word "danger." The truth is that only specific circumstances warrant a danger sign. There are other, less serious levels of risk, and the signs you select should be appropriate and scaled to the risk.

Here are some general guidelines:

  • If physical injury is not a credible risk, a "notice" sign is usually a good choice
  • If physical injury is possible, but it’s not a serious injury or death, use a "caution" sign
  • If serious injury or death is a possibility, a "warning’"sign is appropriate
  • If serious injury or death is almost certain if the hazardous event occurs, use a "danger" sign
  • If you need to provide detailed information, it’s usually best to do so using safety instructions (a green and white sign)

(Learn about Visual Literacy for Occupational Safety.)

5. Size and Location Matter

There are a number of best practices related to the size and placement of safety signs. In general, signs should be located in areas where they are easily visible and where they give the viewer sufficient time to avoid the hazard. They should be large enough for the viewer to read them clearly from your maximum intended viewing distance.

Most signs should be 45” to 66” above the floor, though signs that must be high (like emergency exit and safety equipment signs) should be at least 78” above the floor. The top of egress pathmarking signs should be no higher than 18” above the floor so that viewers can see them in smoky conditions.

Conclusion

Whether an organization selects signs that follow the ANSI format or the OSHA one, the end goal is the same: to alert workers to potential hazards in the workplace to mitigate the risk of accidents. Colors, pictures, and wording all work together to achieve this purpose.