How to Create an Effective and Compliant Safety Sign
Workplace safety signs are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under standard 1910.145 (Specifications for accident prevention signs and tags). The safety sign elements outlined in standard 1910.145 are determined and legally enforced by OSHA, meaning failure to include any one of them in your safety signage could land you a citation come inspection day.
Complying with safety sign legal requirements certainly helps create a safer work environment for your employees, however, it’s more of a baseline rather than the "gold standard" of safety practices. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has developed additional voluntary standards for safety signage that are not legally enforced, but can help make the safety signs in your facility more effective.
It should be noted that while ANSI is not a government agency (and cannot set or enforce laws), legally enforced OSHA standards often incorporate ANSI standards by reference. And in litigation, ANSI standards can sometimes be interpreted as implicit regulations— having voluntarily incorporated them in your safety signage safeguards against this scenario.
What are the Elements of a Compliant Safety Sign?
There are four regulated safety sign elements that must be present in order meet OSHA standards for accident prevention signs. When creating safety signage for your facility it’s important to include all four elements as a baseline for compliance.
Signal Words & Color Codes for OSHA/ANSI Safety Signs
The color code and signal word on a compliant safety sign are inextricably bound together. This is because both OSHA and ANSI designate specific colors for each type of hazard. OSHA requires three types of safety signage signal words: Danger, Caution and Instruction.
For example, OSHA-compliant Danger signs must feature the signal word "DANGER" on a red field, in black text. A compliant Danger Safety Sign cannot have a field of blue, green, orange or any other color besides red.
Caution Safety Signs must feature the signal word "CAUTION" on a yellow field with black letters. Safety Instruction Signs do not have pre-designated signal words as instructions may vary (for example Emergency Eye Wash or First Aid signs. However, these types of safety signs must feature white text on a green field.
Language & Font: Safety Sign Text Elements
OSHA regulation 1910.145(e)(2) provides a guide on the nature of the wording used on safety signs, stating "the wording of any sign should be easily read and concise. The sign should contain sufficient information to be easily understood." In other words, safety signs should be in plain language and to the point.
The interpretation of this regulation also influences the types of font that should be used on safety signage. As all wording on safety signs must be "easily read" it follows that the font must be visually simple so that the text is easy to read. Sans serif fonts are ideal for creating easily readable safety signs.
Placement: A Guide to Safety Sign Locations
The whole point of safety signage is to alert employees to potential hazards in the workplace so the appropriate measures can be taken to avoid accidental injury and/or health repercussions. This is laid out clearly in 1910.145(f)(3).
Using common sense, it follows that safety signs should be placed near potential hazards. OSHA further clarifies placement of safety messaging (and makes it enforceable by law) with 1910.145(f)(4)(vi). Safety messaging (whether communicated by safety tags or safety signs), must be placed "as close as safely possible to their respective hazards."
Keeping safety signs unobstructed, at eye-level and as near the potential hazard as possible is ideal safety sign placement. Following this rule of thumb upholds not only section (f)(4)(vi), but also relates back to (e)(2), positioning safety signs so that they are easily read.
Size: Standard Size of Safety Signage
OSHA safety signage regulations do not specify specific sizes for safety signs and tags, but 8.5" by 11" is a good starting point. Section 1910.145(f)(4) simply states that "the signal word shall be readable at a minimum distance of five feet (1.52 meters) or such greater distance as warranted by the hazard."
Setting regulations for focusing on the readability of signal words emphasizes the primary function of safety signs—relaying the safety message to employees. Ensuring workers can see safety signs from a safe distance helps alert them to possible hazards and give them time to respond appropriately before risking exposure to the hazard.
How to Make Your Safety Signs More Effective
Although ANSI safety sign standards aren’t legally required, they definitely help achieve more effective safety communication in your facility. When OSHA sets regulations for safety standards it is bound by a duty to ensure laws are reasonably enforceable. Sometimes this means weighing the costs of implementation.
ANSI-compliant safety signs are considered the "gold standard" because, as an organization ANSI is not restricted by implementation costs. When it comes to safety sign compliance, OSHA standards are mandatory, but many employers choose to go the extra mile and adopt additional ANSI safety standards.
ANSI Safety Symbols & Pictograms for Safety Signs
The ANSI Z535 series provides general guidelines for safety signage, some of which have been directly referenced in OSHA regulations. ANSI standards for pictograms and safety symbols are not referenced in any OSHA regulation, but they’re still a great element to include in safety signs to enhance communication with workers.
Safety symbols help identify and warn against specific hazards, quickly and universally providing information to help workers avoid personal injury. Pictograms and safety symbols increase the effectiveness of safety signs by drawing attention to the message and making it more easily understood.
ANSI Safety Sign Signal Words & Color Codes
In addition to the three types of safety sign required by OSHA (Danger, Caution, Safety Instruction), ANSI recommends two additional types of safety signage: Warning and Notice. Each of these safety signs have their own color code and signal words.
Warning Safety Signs should feature the signal word "WARNING" on an orange field with black letters. Notice Signs should feature the signal word "NOTICE" on a blue field with white letters. Neither of these types of safety signs are required by law, but it’s generally considered best practice to incorporate them when applicable.
Remember: While ANSI standards are not laws, implementing ANSI standard safety signs in your facility is generally the safest course of action. Using all five types of safety sign signal words/color codes and incorporating ANSI safety symbols in your safety signage helps protect workers, as well as your business in case of legal action.
Create Better Safety Signs: Try SLAPS Mnemonic Device
A mnemonic device is a memory tool to help you remember a list of information. SLAPS will help you recall the four safety sign elements required by OSHA and a fifth "best-practices" element established by ANSI.
Signal Words & Color Codes
Language & Font
ANSI Safety Symbols & Pictograms*
*Not required by OSHA, but generally considered "best practice" to increase the effectiveness of safety signs in your facility.
Matching Safety Signs with Common Hazards
There are types of safety signs that span a variety of heavy-duty and high-traffic industries. For example, fall prevention, strains and sprains, first aid and making sure employees use proper personal protection equipment (PPE) are safety concerns that nearly all industrial workplaces must address.
Yellow and black "CAUTION" safety signs can be used to help identify hazards that may cause slips, trips or falls. Some examples of instances that require caution safety signage include spills causing slippery or wet floors, damaged or uneven floors and trailing cords or cables.
Green and black "SAFETY INSTRUCTION" signs may be used to communicate proper lifting techniques, or the location of first aid supplies. Blue and white "NOTICE" safety signs can be used to designate areas restricted to certain personnel or communicate recommended PPE.
Of course, there are some industries in which certain hazards are more commonly present than others. Noting the types of safety signs that apply to hazards commonly found in your industry can prepare you for creating effective and compliant safety signage.
Construction Site Safety Signs
OSHA reports that year after year, falls consistently account for the greatest number of fatalities in the construction industry. As fall hazards present severe and immediate danger, "DANGER" safety signs are some of the most common safety signs used on construction sites.
"DANGER" safety signs for fall prevention may include messaging that ranges from simple "fall hazard," to "fall hazard, no access" and "fall protection required beyond this point." ANSI safety symbols depicting fall hazards and fall protection methods can enhance the effectiveness of fall hazard safety signs.
"CAUTION" safety signs that warn against risk of electric shock are also fairly common on construction sites due to use of powered equipment and electrical installation. All types of safety signs can be used to communicate PPE needs and/or requirements based on the severity level of the hazard.
For example, construction site hazards that present severe and immediate danger often require use of hard hats, safety shoes and eye protection. In this case, a "DANGER" safety signs would be the most compliant and effective choice to communicate PPE needs.
Safety Signs for Warehouse & Manufacturing
Although heavy machinery such as bulldozers may more readily come to mind in relation to construction sites, heavy machinery hazards are surprisingly more prevalent in warehouse and manufacturing facilities. Heavy machinery doesn’t even make OSHA’s list of most common construction hazards, but unsafe use of forklifts is at the top of warehouse hazard concerns.
IndustrySafe, which specializes in safety data trends, also points to hazards regarding powered industrial trucks as one of the five most common manufacturing hazards. "CAUTION" safety signs are generally used wherever forklifts, motorized hand trucks and platform lift trucks are operated.
Both OSHA and IndustrySafe also call out lockout/tagout procedures as prevalent hazards in both industries. Lockout/tagout safety signs generally use the "DANGER" signal word and color code. Some messaging you might see on a lockout/tagout safety sign may include "lockout/tagout required before entering" and "lockout/tagout must be performed during set up, maintenance or repair."
In a warehouse, green and white safety instruction signs can help employees follow proper stacking procedures. In manufacturing facilities "DANGER," "WARNING" AND "CAUTION" safety signs can help employees work with machines more safely.
Machine guard safety signs often feature messaging such as "keep hands out of machinery" and "do not operate without guards in place." Text elements are further emphasized with ANSI safety symbols to drive the message home.
Safety Signs for Hospitals & Medical Offices
Of course, extremely common safety signs like "CAUTION" signs for preventing slips, trips and falls, and "NOTICE" signs restricting access, are essential needs in hospitals and medical offices. However, there is a fourth type of OHSA-mandated safety sign that is extremely common in medical spaces, yet not covered in general safety sign elements: Biological hazard signs.
Biological hazard signs, or biohazard safety signs, stand out from other safety signs because regulation 1910.145(e)(4) does not indicate specific biohazard sign elements, just the conditions under which they must be used. This includes signifying "the actual or potential presence of a biohazard" and identifying "equipment, containers, rooms, materials and experimental animals" that may be contaminated with, or contain, hazardous agents.
Instead, regulation 1910.1030 (Bloodborne pathogens) must be referred to for specific biohazard safety sign requirements. 1910.1030(g)(1)(i)(B) and (C) indicate the required use of the international symbol for biohazards and that the signage must be predominately fluorescent orange or orange-red with the symbols and text in a contrasting color.
Hospitality Safety Signs
The hospitality industry is unique when it comes to creating compliant and effective safety signs. The types of businesses encompassed by the hospitality industry (food and beverage, recreation, lodging, tourism and travel) are fairly varied and the comfort of guests is vital for success.
"NOTICE" safety signs for food preparation such as "wash your hands before commencing work" and "this sink for pot washing only" are common examples of safety signs found in hospitality businesses that serve food. "DANGER" signs for hot surfaces, and "SAFETY INSTRUCTION" signs for proper knife handling are other examples.
It’s also important to remember that hospitality workspaces are not closed systems (i.e. operating with only employees and trained personnel on site). Generally, a variety of guests can be expected to be unsupervised on site at any given time.
In most cases, there is no way to guarantee guests have even basic safety training and how safe a guest feels affects their overall experience and level of customer satisfaction. Safety signs that are OSHA-compliant, effectively communicate hazards to the layperson and also effective for setting guests at ease are the best solution.
Although not required by OSHA, ANSI safety symbols can help the average untrained guest to better understand the meanings of safety signage. The addition of ANSI "NOTICE" signs can be used to alert guests to security measures in place to help them feel safer.
Chemical Safety HazCom Signs
Any time dangerous chemicals are present in the workplace, hazard communication (HazCom) is incredibly important. This includes safety signs, GHS chemical labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS) to help keep workers informed and safe.
Chemical hazards are common across most industries, perhaps even more common than you might think. For example, potentially hazardous cleaning chemicals like bleach, ammonia and other solvents are used in hospitals, warehouses, manufacturing plants and virtually every sector of the hospitality industry.
Businesses that manufacture chemicals, use chemicals in the manufacturing process, transport chemicals or store chemicals, need even more stringent safety precautions in place. In addition to extremely specific requirements covered in OSHA standard 1910.1200 (Hazard Communication), some common chemical HazCom safety signage may include "DANGER" safety signs communicating poisonous gas, combustibility and the need for PPE while mixing chemicals.
Common Safety Sign Mistakes & HazCom Failures to Avoid
Outdated Safety Signs: Safety signage must be kept up to date in order to be effective, and should be regularly updated to meet new requirements set forth by OSHA. Custom-made hard plastic and metal safety signs often require long lead times and regular replacement is not cost-effective.
Improper Placement: OSHA regulations require safety signs be placed as close as possible to the hazard. Mounting safety signage close to hazards may be tricky depending on the surface. It may not be feasible or desirable to drill holes for screw mounting and low-grade adhesives may fall off.
Damaged or Missing Signage: Adhesive safety signs can be effective and practical solutions, but it’s important to choose reliable, high-quality products that have been tested for optimal adhesion so you know they won’t fall off. Safety signs that have been damaged to the point of illegibility are just as bad as missing signage. OSHA regulations clearly state that safety signs must be easily readable.
Missing Safety Sign Elements: Custom safety signs can help increase employee awareness, generally boosting safety in your facility. However, outsourcing custom safety signage design to inexperienced graphic designers, or others with no safety background, can result in missing key elements required for OSHA compliance.
Avery® Industrial Safety Signage Solutions
The most common safety sign failures can be avoided with Avery tools that put the power of effective workplace safety awareness where it belongs— in your hands. With Surface Safe® Sign Labels you’re the captain of the ship.
Our simple, straightforward online software makes it easy to translate your safety expertise and experience into compliant, effect safety signage. Hundreds of professionally designed OSHA and ANSI safety sign templates ensure there are no missing safety sign elements while also allowing for customization.
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Ensure you can properly place your safety signage with adhesive safety signs that reliably stick on a variety of surfaces. Surface Safe sign labels are rigorously tested to stick securely to surfaces including drywall, painted walls and doors, stainless steel, metal and glass, yet remove cleanly. Aggressive adhesive ensures safety signs don’t come off until you want them to.
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