Special Topics in Safety Management

For Signs of Safety, Use Safety Signs

They may not be exciting or high tech, but safety signs save lives. Here are the criteria for an effective signage program.

You’re in a movie theater. And after endless trailers (and an ad for the local car wash) that new sci-fi flick you’ve waited to see finally starts. The lights dim, the music comes up, and you’re thrust into deep space. The illusion is complete. Except, that is for those darn exit signs lit up at both ends of the screen.

Annoying as they may be, those signs are the first things you’ll look for should an evacuation of the theater be needed. In fact, those signs could save your life.

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So it goes for safety signs. They’re low-tech and old-fashioned, perhaps, but vital. And required as well, under 29 CFR 1910.145, and other regulations, for any workplace operation for which there’s a danger that signs can point out.

Because signs get so little notice, we were glad to recently see them in the safety literature. Like the article on businessknowledgesource.com that stated, “the importance of workplace safety signs cannot be stressed enough.” If properly designed and used, “signs can overcome a number of losses due to language barriers, reading abilities and [insufficient] work experience.”

Beyond the location of the exits, what can proper signage help workers understand?

“Machine troubleshooting processes, startup and shutdown procedures … and detailed machinery operating procedures,” says businessknowledgesource. “Wherever there is need for general instruction, there should be a safety sign to help avoid potential injury.”

Of course, even the best signs won’t help if poorly designed or improperly used. OSHA specifies the design of many common signs, such as EXIT or CAUTION, using ANSI standards incorporated into the reg by reference. But there’s no way they can regulate how every sign will be made and used.

Good practices for doing both were detailed in Occupational Health & Safety recently, in an article by Drue Townsend. Townsend laid out four key attributes for a good sign, whatever its message. We’ll look at two of them today, two tomorrow.

Visibility. It sounds basic, but signs can’t do any good if they’re not visible. There are a lot of reasons they may not be. Check your break room bulletin board. Is one sign plastered over others? Are the signs so old they’re now the color of the Declaration of Independence? Are they hidden in corners or in hard-to-reach places on the equipment they’re designed to explain? To enhance visibility, especially from a distance, Townsend points out that certain color choices are recommended. “Yellow on black,” he writes, “is one of the easiest color combinations to read.” Borders also help.

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Readability. Imagine driving to an intersection and finding a sign that reads “Cease Forward Motion of Your Vehicle.” That’s why stop signs just say “STOP.” It’s quick to read and understand.

The lesson here: “Keep the message short and simple.” It also helps to use a graphic, especially where workers are not proficient in English. A red circle with a slash line across a burning cigarette conveys the “No Smoking” message no matter what language you speak.

We’ll discuss Townsend’s other two key attributes, noticeability and legibility, and add one more attribute of our own—durability—in the next Advisor.