What is the difference between a warning sign and a caution sign?

Q:

What is the difference between a warning sign and a caution sign?

A:

It can be tricky to determine the meaning of signs, especially when the words all seem to be synonyms with each other. But don’t be fooled: there is, in fact, a difference between cautions and warnings.

Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself safe.

Caution Signs

What It Is

A caution sign indicates a potentially hazardous situation that must be avoided. Failure to do so may result in minor to moderate injury.

An ANSI caution sign has the word "CAUTION" written in black block letters on a yellow background, preceded by the universal caution symbol. It may have additional text below to further explain the hazard (learn about Safety Symbols and Their Meanings).

An OSHA caution sign uses yellow block lettering on a black background, often with additional wording (in black letters on a yellow background) below.

Where It's Used

In areas where injury or equipment damage is possible, or to warn against unsafe practices. This sign is used only when personal injury is a risk. One of the most common examples is when there is a wet floor, which presents employees with a slip risk.

Other examples include:

  • Caution: Access door may be hot
  • Caution: Dust mask must be worn
  • Caution: Do not climb on or jump from dock
  • Caution: Low overhead clearance
  • Caution: Men working

Warning Signs

What It Is

Warning signs represent a greater hazard level than caution signs do, but less than danger signs.

ANSI signs have "WARNING" written in black on an orange background, and may have additional safety symbols or text printed in black on the lower part of the sign.

OSHA warning signs are written in black text on an orange background, with a black border around the word "warning." There is often additional explanatory text below.

Since the danger is severe, it’s essential that these signs be noticeable and easily read from a safe distance (find out How to Master the Science of Sign Visibility).

Where It's Used

In areas where there is a hazardous situation that could result in serious injury or death.

The signs should be used only when there is a risk of personal injury – not just property damage.

Examples include:

  • Warning: Hazardous materials storage area
  • Warning: Moving machinery
  • Warning: High Voltage
  • Warning: Explosive material

Know the Difference

Knowing the difference between these signs is essential. While caution signs simply indicates a minor risk of injury if proper safety practices aren’t observed, warning signs alert us to significant hazards that could cause severe injuries or death.

If you have questions about signs in your workplace, be sure to speak to a supervisor and find out which safety practices are needed.

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Written by Jessica Barrett
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Jessica is a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant. After starting her career in the travel industry, she branched out on her own in 2016 and hasn't looked back since. Jessica is a regular contributor to several websites and works with numerous small businesses and NGOs around the world to craft content for both online and offline platforms. When she isn't writing, you might find her practicing yoga or adventuring (aka eating) her way through a new country. You an learn more about her on her website.

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