Four Questions to Ask When Designing Workplace Safety Signs

By Geoffrey Peckham | 8th Jun 2016

June is National Safety Month. It’s a time to focus on reducing the leading causes of injury and death at work. Best practice safety signs (that are aligned with the latest safety sign, color and tag standards) are an important part of your workplace safety strategy. Here at Clarion, we stand ready as your expert resource for safety signage – this month and throughout the rest of the year. 

When it comes to designing safety signs for workplaces, there are several central considerations – key questions – to ask yourself.

  • Question #1

Before you begin the design of one sign, ask yourself, is this sign part of a “system” of signs – a system of safety communication in my facility? In my experience of having designed literally thousands of  safety signs and labels, the answer is almost always a resounding “yes.” It’s rare that a safety sign exists all by itself. Even if it is one design, that one sign is repeatedly placed throughout the facility. An example is the “dangerous yak” signs we recently created for a yak farm, which were placed repeatedly along the fence line surrounding a field containing a herd of yaks.

When you begin to see that the single safety sign you need is part of a system of signs, your eyes are opened to the larger perspective: your facility’s signs need to work together to communicate risk and improve awareness of safe work behaviors. And they need to do this in a uniform way. Which leads to the next question…

  • Question #2

Do you want your new safety sign to be designed to 1941-era standards, or do you want to use the latest  best practice standards as defined by ANSI and ISO? Most people are new to safety sign design, including most safety professionals, and they aren’t aware that the “DANGER-in-an-oval” word-message-only safety sign is completely out of date, having been removed from the ANSI Z535 standards in 2002. And even though OSHA continues to maintain references to the 1968 and 1967 safety sign standards, the agency’s addition of references to the latest ANSI Z535 standards for safety signs, tags and colors (placed right next to the old references) makes it clear that OSHA wants to encourage adoption of the new standards. Why? Because they’re better! The design of the new formats makes plenty of room for the incorporation of safety symbols, and the rules for text and signal words makes for a much more complete and appropriate safety message particular to the identified situation.

construction PPE sign

Granted, now that you’re aware of what the newer safety sign formats look like and the level of content they’re expected to convey – and you’re aware that you need to look at how your facility’s safety signs work as a system – you may find yourself in a position of wanting to revise ALL of your signs to bring them up to  present-day standards.

  • Question #3

Who is your intended audience? Answering this question gives you the ability to intelligently design your safety signs so they meet the needs and characteristics of the people you’re trying to protect from harm – and that’s a good thing. Too often engineers and safety professionals write things to their higher level of learning. They understand risk, risk assessment methodologies and risk mitigation techniques. But the objective of a safety sign system is to communicate these things at the lowest anticipated level of understanding that occurs in your workforce – the workforce that you anticipate will need to see the safety sign and obey its message. In my experience, you find yourself writing most signage to meet the reading level of an 8th grade education. And then there is another set of signage, like  arc flash explosion hazard labels on electrical panels, that’s written for highly trained individuals who are very knowledgeable in their fields and who can understand the specialized information presented on such labels.

  • Question #4

Finally, though there are a dozen other questions that come to mind, this one stands out because it ties into the three prior questions: do one or more safety symbols exist that will help to communicate your intended message? I’m not talking, here, about the ad hoc safety symbols you’ll find offered up on signs by the vast majority of safety sign companies. You must steer clear of that visual mess of things. I’m talking about safety symbols that have either been officially registered by ISO as the definitive symbol for a given meaning, or safety symbols that are created using the design criteria established by ISO standards. You could certainly say here that I’m promoting something that I had a  significant hand in writing, since I’ve chaired the U.S. committee (TAG) for ANSI to the ISO standards in this field for the past twenty years. And that’s fine, because at the end of the day the fact remains that these ISO standards are accepted by ANSI, sold by ANSI and define for the world current best practices in, what I call, visual risk communication. And that is where you want to be, not stuck back in 1941!

Geoffrey Peckham
CEO, Clarion Safety Systems

This blog is part of a series of regular posts from our CEO, Geoffrey Peckham, to share his insight. Geoffrey serves as chair of the ANSI Z535 Committee for Safety Signs and Colors and chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 145 – Graphical Symbols. He has also been selected as a member of the U.S. TAG to ISO/PC 283, an ISO committee writing a new standard, ISO 45001 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems, which will, when finished, define global best practices for workplace safety. In addition, he is an active member of many industry-specific standards committees related to safety signs and labels for buildings, ships, machinery and products.