A Guide to Safety Signs and Symbols

General Safety By Matthew Coombes

What is a safety sign?

A safety sign is used as part of an organisation’s plan to communicate information. They’re a great way to get important information across fast, without having to have a person stood where the sign is yelling at everyone “Construction site, unauthorised persons keep out!”.

Additionally, they provide reinforcement to key safe working processes such as wearing a hard hat, and can be a vital reminder for before the Monday morning coffee hits.

In the UK, a lot of signage is purely or significantly pictorial, meaning that there is some illustration of the danger/warning on the sign, this is because in 2012, the release of British Standards ISO 7010:2012 provided an internationally agreed format for signage to protect workers in countries foreign to their native language.
So, if we go over to Spain, we can understand their signs, and if someone from Germany comes to the UK they can understand our signs.

This agreed and pictorial signage allows safety signs to provide their information to:

  • Children
  • People that are far away
  • Those with learning disabilities
  • Those that speak English as a second language, or don’t speak English at all

In addition, being a non-verbal means of communication allows them to still get a message across in a loud environment.

Where do safety signs come from?

In the UK, many safety signs come from UK legislation such as The Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996 and internationally agreed ISO standards such as ISO 7010 Safety Colours and Safety Signs.

There are four main types of safety sign in the UK:
Prohibition sign – This type of sign prohibits a behaviour that will increase danger, such as a ‘no unauthorised persons’ sign.
Warning sign – This sign will provide warning of a hazard, such as electrical danger, deep or cold water, or a slippery floor.
Mandatory sign – A mandatory sign is typically to instruct you on an expected behaviour for that area, such as the need to wear hearing protection, hardhats or eye protection.
Emergency sign – Emergency signs provide information beneficial in an emergency situation, such as pointing to the nearest fire exit, signposting first aid facilities, or indicating a nearby automated external defibrillator.

Where do safety signs not work?

Useless signs – Arguably one of the most common signs is the ‘wet floor sign’ or ‘slippery surface when wet’, these signs are a great example of poor use of signage. A ‘wet floor’ sign is essentially an admission of guilt, “yes the floor is wet/slippery, and no we’re not doing anything to manage this risk”.

You could argue that the sign informs the user of the floor that they need to ‘walk carefully’. However, this is not an effective way to control the risks associated with a slippery surface, and a wet floor sign means nothing to a person who uses mobility aides such as crutches.

Poor management of the risks associated with your flooring can be seen as a failure to manage health and safety, and any resulting injuries from a person slipping on your floor can be reasonable grounds for prosecution or a civil case to be brought against your organisation.

Complicated signs and complicated risks – Too many signs, or overcomplicated signs with too many instructions, can detract meaning from the signs as a whole. In addition, not removing signs that are no longer applicable can make people ignore the signs that are. For example, still having “danger open excavation pits” when there are clearly no longer pits present may lead people to ignore a sign like ‘live wires’ believing that this sign is also no longer relevant.

Signs only work if they add value by reinforcing an existing process, procedure or in addition to other safety cues.

For example, “wear hearing protection” will only be an effective sign if all those working or visiting the site have access to hearing protection. A better sign would be “hearing protection required. Available from site office”, which tells people where to go to acquire hearing protection and that they are required to wear it.

Signage is always an “in addition to…” part of the process, and a sign on its own is not sufficient to manage complicated risks.

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