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The Complete Guide to Industrial Safety Signs: Types of Signs, Regulations, Standards and Best Practices to Promote Safety in the Workplace

Last Updated: July 2, 2019
Posted by: Shelly Stazzone in Safety

Industrial safety signs are commonplace across many industries. They take a variety of forms, but all industrial safety signs are designed to promote safety by informing workers, operators, and passersby of potential dangers in certain areas, near equipment, or in proximity to hazardous materials. Industrial Safety Signs Workplace Safety

Being related to safety measures in industrial settings, industrial safety signage is subject to various regulations, which can be complex to navigate. We’ve put together this comprehensive guide to industrial safety signs to provide a central resource encompassing the various types of signs, regulations, guidelines, and best practices, and buying tips for selecting the right signs for your applications.

Table of Contents: 

Use Cases for Industrial Safety Signs

Industrial safety signs are used for several purposes, with most common applications falling into one of three categories:

  • Equipment maintenance requirements – Industrial equipment and machinery requires ongoing, regular maintenance to function at its best. Signs are often used to outline maintenance requirements and provide basic instructions for maintenance procedures, such as the proper way to shut down equipment before performing routine maintenance. Risk Management
  • Operating instructions – Much like signs for maintenance requirements, industrial safety signs are commonly used to outline basic operating procedures to ensure operator safety. While experienced equipment operators may not need to review the standard safety procedures before every use, these types of signs are often mandated by regulatory agencies and provide a safety net for company liability. For instance, if an operator injures himself by using improper operating procedures, the company could be penalized if the equipment did not display the appropriate signage.
  • Safety instructions – These types of signs are used to convey important safety warnings regarding health and injury risks. These signs may display information about avoiding exposure to harmful chemicals or hazardous substances or materials or serve as a notification of the location of safety equipment, such as an eye wash station.

All industrial safety signs are intended to convey important information that may not be obvious on first glance in order to keep workers and other people safe from potential injuries or health risks.

Benefits of Industrial Safety Signs

The most obvious benefit of industrial safety signs is that they promote safety and help to prevent injuries in the workplace and other settings. Some applications are subject to regulations that mandate the use of industrial safety signs, often specifying the types of signs that must be present in certain locations on or near equipment, as well as the colors, symbols, and messaging required for compliance.

Of course, injury prevention is always the desired result, but unfortunately, operational errors and other accidents can lead to injuries despite the best prevention efforts. Industrial safety signs can help to reduce liability by providing proper notification for operators and other workers in the vicinity on the risks presented by machines, chemical hazards, requirements for protective safety gear such as eye protection or ear protection, and the like. Companies may not be liable for certain damages provided that all proper safety procedures were in place and warnings and safety instructions were posted appropriately and clearly visible. Workers are, of course, entitled to worker’s compensation benefits, but proper safety signage can provide some protection to companies should an injured party pursue further damages. (In other words, industrial safety signs help to ensure that you have all your ducks in a row.)

Wayfinding Sign

Industrial safety signs can also aid in wayfinding, providing information on alternate, safer routes from point A to point B, notifying people of congested areas that can pose safety risks, and provide clear, highly visible signs to direct people to emergency exits or label the location of essential emergency equipment, such as automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and fire extinguishers. In fact, OSHA regulations include specifications for emergency egress routes, mandating that all exits are labeled with highly visible “Exit” signs, and other hallways and areas that could be mistaken for an exit route must be clearly labeled with signs indicating “Not an Exit,” along with appropriate labeling to convey the actual purpose of the space (e.g., closet, conference room, etc.).

OSHA also requires that there be a clear line-of-sight to an Exit sign at all times, and that exits be free of clutter and obstacles that may prevent occupants from escaping the building safely. When the path to an exit isn’t obvious, other signs must be used to direct occupants to the nearest exit route. In short, industrial safety signs provide myriad specific benefits related to safety, but they also aid in regulatory compliance and reduce company risk.

Types of Industrial Safety Signs

Industrial safety signs take a variety of forms and functions, but they can be best classified by their primary use. When most people think of industrial safety signs, they think of the standard “caution” and “warning” signs that indicate a risk. These types of signs represent one of three hazard levels:

  • Danger Signs – Indicate immediate hazards that will result in injury or death if not avoided. Corrosive Materials Warning Sign
  • Warning Signs – Indicate a hazard level that falls somewhere between caution and danger, indicating a risk that could result in serious injury or death if not avoided.
  • Caution Signs – Represent the lowest hazard level, indicating potentially hazardous situations that may result in minor to moderate injury if not avoided.

Of course, industrial safety signs encompass far more than hazard levels. The types of industrial safety signs listed below outline the primary function of different types of signs, but note that they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. In some cases, certain symbols or messages can be used on other sign types, creating a dual-purpose sign. Other industrial safety sign types include:

  • Biological Hazard Signs – Used to indicate either the actual or potential presence of a biohazard, identifying objects (tools, equipment, containers, etc.) that either are or could possibly be contaminated with “viable hazardous agents” that pose a risk or potential risk to a person’s well-being.
  • Notice Signs – Used to communicate general information relevant to equipment, a building, area, or machine. These signs are related to practices that are not related to personal injury.
  • General Safety Signs – Used to communicate important safety instructions and procedures, such as rules and practices for first aid, sanitation, housekeeping, medical equipment, etc.
  • Fire Safety Signs – As mentioned previously, industrial safety signs are often used to label the location of emergency equipment, such as fire extinguishers. These signs don’t include directions for operating safety equipment; instead, they simply mark the location of emergency equipment to make life-saving tools easy to access in case of a crisis. Emergency Exit
  • Admittance Signs – Indicate who is permitted to enter designated areas or locations. Admittance signs are often used in conjunction with other types of signs; for instance, an admittance message may be included on a warning or caution sign or a sign with any other header.
  • Safety Symbols – While safety symbols can stand alone on a sign (provided they’re sufficient to convey the message), they’re often used in conjunction with other sign types to provide a pictorial depiction to accompany written text and notifications. These symbols encompass everything from required or prohibited actions to consequences and directions, as well as the effects of interacting with hazards such as chemical exposure. Additionally, safety symbols can be used in sequence to illustrate a sequence of events in a visual manner.
  • Surround Shapes – Surround shapes include hazard alerting, mandatory actions, prohibition, and information, and they’re often used to quickly convey the primary purpose of a safety sign, while other elements provide more detail regarding the specific messages. The prohibition surround shape is required for signs that communicate prohibited actions. Most people recognize this shape as a circle (red or black) with a diagonal slash.

In addition to these elements, luminescence is also a consideration for safety signs. There are two primary finishes that can enhance the visibility of safety signs:

  • Photo-Luminescent Safety SignsPhotoluminescence (or PL) refers to the quality of a material to emit light after being exposed to light or other electromagnetic radiation. Photo-luminescent signs, therefore, are luminescent for greater visibility after exposure to light.
  • Retro-Reflective Safety Signs – Retroreflectivity describes a characteristic of certain substances and materials to reflect light back to its originating source. Most traffic signs are now retro-reflective in order to enhance visibility at night.

Regulatory Requirements

Industrial safety signs fall under the purview of several regulatory bodies, including OSHA, ANSI, and military standards issued by the Department of Defense. Here’s an overview of the primary regulations related to industrial safety signs issued by each of these authorities:

OSHA Regulations

OSHA Standard 1910.145, Specifications for accident prevention signs and tags, is the primary regulation that outlines requirements for industrial safety signage. These specifications apply to “the design, application, and use of signs and symbols that indicate and, insofar as possible, define specific hazards that could harm workers or the public, or both, or to property damage.” Note that this specification covers all types of safety signs with the exception of signs designated for streets, railroads, and highways, and they also don’t apply to plant bulletin boards or safety posters.

OSHA specifies that all signs should have rounded or blunt corners and should be free of sharp edges, splinters, burrs, or any other sharp projections. Additionally, the ends or heads of bolts or any other fastening devices must be located in a manner that they don’t constitute a hazard.

Further, OSHA outlines specific requirements for colors, symbols, and other elements used for signs of specific types, including:

  • Danger Signs – Must be red, black, and white.
  • Caution Signs – Must have a yellow background color with black lettering for any elements used against the yellow background. The panel must be black with yellow letters.
  • Safety Instruction Signs – Must have a white background, and the panel must be green with white letters. Any letters used against the white background should be black.

Other important requirements set forth by OSHA include: Danger High Voltage

  • All wording on any sign should be concise and easy to read. Signs must contain sufficient information to be easily understood, and wording must have a positive (not negative) suggestion and be factual.
  • Tags are used to prevent accidents, injury, or illness from hazardous or potentially hazardous conditions that aren’t immediately obvious, are unexpected, or out of the ordinary. Note that tags do not need to be used where signs or other protection measures are in place.
  • Tags must contain a “signal word,” or a word intended to capture immediate attention, such as “Danger,” “Caution,” or “Biological Hazard,” “BIOHAZARD,” or the biological hazard symbol, and a “major message,” or words that specifically convey the hazardous condition or important safety instruction, such as “High Voltage,” “Do Not Start,” or “Do Not Use.”
  • Signal words must be readable from a minimum distance of five feet (1.52 m). In some cases, signal words should be readable from a greater distance, depending on what is warranted for the specific hazard.
  • A tag’s major message must be conveyed in written words, pictographs (symbols), or both.
  • Both a tag’s signal word and major message should be easily understood by all employees who may be exposed to the potential hazard in question, and employees must be educated on the meaning of words, symbols, and other elements used in safety signs and tags throughout the organization.
  • Tags should be positioned as closely as possible to the potential hazard, and they must be affixed in a way that prevents loss or unintentional removal.

ANSI Standards

The American National Standards (ANS) are created by the National Electrical Manufacturers AssociationANSI Z535 Safety Alerting Standards outline the unique properties for safety signs that are effective in alerting people to hazards in the workplace and in other settings. The relevant standards fall under ANSI Z535.

Laboratory Safety Symbols

The ANSI Z535 Committee on Safety Signs and Colors was formed in 1979, with the purpose of developing “standards for the design, application, and use of signs, colors, and symbols
intended to identify and warn against specific hazards and for other accident prevention
purposes.” Specifically, the ANSI Z535 Committee’s goal is “to develop, refine, and
promote a single, uniform graphic system used for communicating safety and accident prevention
information.”

ANSI Z535 is comprised of six standards:

  • ANSI/NEMA Z535.1-2006 (R2011), Safety colors – Establishes technical definitions, color standards, and color tolerances for the ANSI Z535 safety colors.
  • ANSI Z535.2-2011, Environmental and facility safety signs – Guides the design, application, and use of safety signs in facilities and in the environment, specifying requirements to promote consistent visual layout.
  • ANSI/NEMA Z535.3-2011, Criteria for safety symbols – Provides general criteria for the design, evaluation, and use of safety symbols for the purpose of identifying and providing warnings regarding personal injury risks.
  • ANSI/NEMA Z535.4-2011, Product safety signs and labels – Establishes performance requirements for the design, application, use, and placement of safety signs and labels on products.
  • ANSI/NEMA Z535.5-2011, Safety tags and barricade tapes (for temporary hazards) – Covers the design, application, and use of safety tags and barricade tapes for temporary hazards.
  • ANSI/NEMA Z535.6-2011, Product safety information in product manuals, instructions, and other collateral materials – Outlines requirements for clear, consistent communication of safety information for a range of products, specifically addressing collateral information, such as owner’s manuals, maintenance and assembly instructions, and similar materials.

Military Standards

Industrial safety signs may also fall under certain military specifications. MIL-STD-15024F, updated in 1993, is the primary standard relating to specifications for signs and tags.  According to EverySpec.com, “This performance specification covers the physical characteristics of plates, tags and bands (identification devices) used for identification of equipment. Examples of information to be marked on the identification devices are covered in the applicable specification sheets.”

This standard outlines the specific information and requirements that must be outlined in specification sheets, encompassing every physical characteristic from the type of identification device to the color style, color of filler, packaging requirements, and more. Only certain materials are permitted for use and must be highly durable, capable of withstanding environmental and cleaning conditions, fungus, and other conditions. UIDs and associated materials must also be free of defects, including:

  • Blistered, cracked, peeling, or flaking finish
  • Incorrect colors
  • Illegible
  • Inscriptions or descriptions that fail to meet specifications
  • Non-specified related materials
  • Dimensions that do not meet compliance requirements
  • Splintered, silvered, or other damage to the finish that could pose risk of injury

Samples are often tested, and if any sample should fail a test, the entire lot associated with the sample will be rejected. Thus, perfection is key for signs and tags subject to these and other military standards.

Industrial Safety Signs Best Practices

Procuring industrial safety signs is not a decision that can be made lightly. With a multitude of regulations and specifications to comply with, and the health and safety of workers and other people at potential risk, due diligence is well worth your time.

  • Know your regulations. OSHA and ANSI regulations apply to most application for industrial safety signs, and following recognized, established standards is a good practice regardless. Danger Keep Out
  • Conduct employee training. It’s imperative for companies to train employees not only on sound safety practices and company safety policies and procedures, but also on recognizing the symbols and messages used in industrial safety signs throughout the organization. Doing so ensures that every employee understands what safety symbols and certain words mean, thus, they’re better able to keep themselves out of danger.
  • Consider sign placement. It’s not only the colors, symbols, and other elements used on safety signs that are subject to regulatory specifications; some regulations specify visibility requirements and placement specifications to ensure that safety signs are clear, visible, and readable from a reasonable distance. Make sure that employees can see and read safety signs from a reasonable distance. A misplaced sign that’s not visible to an employee about to engage in a risky action can mean the difference between a minor mishap and a major health and safety catastrophe.
  • Make sure signs don’t pose a hazard themselves. Signs with sharp or splintered edges can pose a health and safety hazard themselves, so ensure that all signs meet quality specifications and are free of splinters, burrs, and sharp edges that could pose a risk of injury.

What to Look for in Industrial Safety Signs

As if there aren’t enough considerations to weigh already when it comes to industrial safety signs, there are other factors that you should consider before making a buying decision. First and foremost, prioritize durability. Ideally, industrial safety signs should be capable of holding up to the typical environment for a similar application for the expected lifespan of the asset or equipment it relates to. For example, a safety sign outlining operating instructions on machinery that becomes blurred and illegible within a few years will need to be replaced before the machine itself has exhausted its useful life. Look for signs with the durability required to withstand your typical operating conditions for the expected lifespan of your assets and equipment.

Forklift Warning SignAttachment options are another consideration. Of course, as mentioned earlier in this guide, regulations mandate that attachments must be safe (not posing a safety risk with sharp edges or other hazards), but attachments should also securely affix a sign to its location without a risk that the sign will fall off or be accidentally removed. Some signs have multiple fastening options, such as adhesive or mechanical fasteners.

You’ll also want to consider finish options. Choose a sign manufacturer well-versed in applicable regulations and standards which offers finish options to meet your application requirements, such as retro-reflective and photo-luminescent finishes for enhanced visibility. An industrial safety sign manufacturer offering custom colors and finishes ensures that you can procure appropriate, compliant signs for any application.

Readability is key for industrial safety signs. Lettering must be thick and large enough to meet specifications and also to ensure visibility and readability from various distances, depending on the specific application and location. The size of the sign itself matters, too, playing a critical role in whether the essential messaging can be printed on the sign while maintaining readability.

Begin with a thorough analysis of all applicable regulations and standards, which allows you to communicate adequately with suppliers about your needs and applications. Carefully evaluate the options provided by a sign supplier, from customization options to standard sizes, finishes and attachments, and materials. Choose a safety sign supplier who is knowledgeable about industry regulations, diligent about analyzing application requirements, and willing to back their products’ durability.

Additional Resources on Industrial Safety Signs

For more information on industrial safety signs, regulations, design options, and workplace safety, visit the following resources:

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