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Reducing Risk, Protecting People

ISO/TS 20559: A Systems Approach to Warnings and Instructions

Posted by Clarion Safety Systems | 10th Nov 2020


As COVID-19 continues to make an impact on safety and health, one of the issues it’s brought to light in today’s workplaces is the continued need to mitigate risks. By making people aware of risks, there’s the potential to avoid hazards and increase safety. That’s where visual safety communication comes into play. Whether it’s on a product in the form of safety labels, or in a public or private facility in the form of posted signs and markings, the goal is to bring about awareness of potential hazards. That, in turn, can change people’s behavior in a positive way so that risks are avoided. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) recently published a new technical specification (TS) – ISO/TS 20559. With a focus on safety and risk reduction, it’s a helpful, timely resource for facility safety professionals, and also has important parallels to product safety.

What Is ISO/TS 20559?
The full name of this standard is a mouthful: ISO/TS 20559 Graphical symbols – Safety colours and safety signs – Guidance for the development and use of a safety signing system. But, its main aim is clear and practical; it guides workplaces in how to implement safety sign systems. According to ISO/TS 20559’s scope, it provides, “recommendations and explanations on the practical application of safety signs to form a system of communication intended to reduce risk.”

ISO/TS 20559 and Safety Signs
When it comes to identifying hazards and risks in the workplace, the ISO 45001 standard is critical. Published in 2018, it gives organizations an internationally standardized, systematic approach to managing and reducing risk in the workplace. While ISO 45001 addresses hazard identification, assessment of risks and communication, specifics on international best practices for visual safety communication are available in over a dozen standards. What the safety profession was missing was a single, concise document to easily understand best practices for sign systems and know which specific ISO standards to use.

How Clarion Safety Was Involved
Clarion Safety’s founder, Geoffrey Peckham, is the chairman of ISO/TC 145, the technical committee in charge of standards for safety signs and symbols – and the committee that published ISO/TS 20559. He’s also a member of the U.S. TAG to the ISO committee established to write ISO 45001. From that vantage point, he saw that ISO 45001 was dealing with a safety communication problem that ISO/TC 145 could help solve.

As the appointed liaison between ISO/TC 145 and ISO 45001's committee, Geoffrey’s recommendation for TC 145 to create a guidance document was agreed on, and after several years of collaboration, the specification was published late this summer.

“As one of the specification’s principle authors,” Geoffrey says, “I can tell you it took two years of concerted effort by the TC 145 working group to write this specification. It’s definitely more difficult to make things simple than it is to make them complex. Our objective, which I believe we achieved, was to provide the reader with a clear overview that links together the key ISO safety sign standards pertaining to visual safety communication, including product safety labeling, facility safety signs, evacuation route markings, escape plans, and industrial pipe and tank markings.”

Parallels for Product Safety Labels
ISO/TS 20559’s primary focus is workplace safety sign systems. Yet, from a big picture perspective, many of its underlying concepts related to safety communication can be applied to product or equipment safety labeling.

“The substantial benefits of improved safety communication from the use of a systems approach to the specification and installation of safety signs is the key reason ISO/TS 20559 was written,” Geoffrey says. “Bringing awareness of potential hazards and instructing safe work procedures is a major function of a system of safety signage, whether it’s on a product in the form of a ‘system’ of safety labels, or in a public or private facility in the form of a ‘system’ of posted safety signs and markings.”

Here are some of the main concepts from ISO/TS 20559 that can be applied to creating a ‘systems’ approach to safety on products through warnings and instructions:

  • Use the ISO 3864-2 and ANSI Z535.4 standards as guides for the format and design of your labels. Consistent application of these standards should lead to increased comprehension by product users. And, increased comprehension should lead to fewer accidents and injuries, the goal of all safety communication.
  • Use standardized elements and categories of symbols and labels to convey specific meanings. The three types of ISO safety symbols typically used in product safety labeling (warning, prohibition, and mandatory action) have their own specific meanings and design criteria. In a similar vein, ANSI Z535.4 has distinct categories of safety labels, each with their own meaning.
  • Understand that safety labels should provide a unique system of communication on the product. Like safety signs in a workplace, each product or piece of equipment can be thought of as the location for a system of safety signage. This signage has to separate itself from all of the other markings that appear on the product (such as branding, model designation, or function and control markings).
  • Make sure your product safety labels work together to reinforce each other as a uniform system of safety-related communication. That may mean using similar symbols, layouts and phrasing. Taking that idea a step further, it can also mean placing a multi-hazard safety label on your machine’s control station and then placing more specific, explanatory safety labels on the machine at each point of potential interaction with the hazards.

To learn more about ISO/TS 20559 and its parallels to product safety, read Clarion Safety’s latest ‘On Your Mark’ column in In Compliance magazine.

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