Larry Bishop of the Zenith Co. in San Diego had a problem. How was he supposed to communicate important safety information through signs and posters to his largely Vietnamese workforce who knew little, if any, English? Although there was a large source of safety products in the marketplace, including signs in other languages, Vietnamese was not one of them.

Necessity breeds invention, and Bishop came up with a novel approach. He created his own signs by using safety clip art and having a bilingual employee complete the wording of the posters in Vietnamese.

Language barriers are just one of the challenges facing management and safety professionals when trying to impart safety warnings, danger signs and safety instructions to employees through visuals. Other concerns with getting the safety message across include illiterate workers, comprehension problems, sign visibility and compliance or getting employees to actually follow the warnings and instructions.

Help from OSHA

OSHA attempts to address some of these concerns in its regulation "Specifications for accident prevention signs and tags" (29 CFR 1910.145). The goal of the regulation is to designate hazards that "may lead to accidental injury to workers or the public. . . or to property damage." OSHA recommends a basic scheme of hazard levels and colors (see "The colors of safety" sidebar).

More detailed information on the standards required for safety signs, tags and labels can be obtained from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI Z53.1).

OSHA leaves the wording of the signs up to you, although the standard does recommend that the information be positive and accurate. Common sense should dictate when to use certain words. For instance, a NO SMOKING sign may carry the word CAUTION in some parts of your workplace, while in an area with flammable products, the sign should be worded more strongly, such as DANGER — Flammables — NO SMOKING.

People need training

Research shows that people need training to understand signs. Certain symbols are not always understood or can be misinterpreted. For instance, one study showed that the subjects didn’t understand the difference between the words WARNING and CAUTION. That’s why OSHA requires you to include your signs and posters in your safety meetings and training sessions.

Pictographs, simple icons that symbolize certain information without the use of words, are becoming quite popular both in the public arena and in the workplace, particularly when used to communicate to an illiterate audience. However, it is important to teach your employees exactly what the pictograph represents and what is expected from the workers.

Research says. . .

When choosing safety posters, signs and labels, consider some of these research findings:

  • Women are more likely than men to look for and read — and comply with — warnings.
  • People 40 and above are more likely than younger people to take precautions in response to warnings. However, they are less likely to understand the warnings.
  • Warnings printed horizontally were found more quickly than those printed vertically.
  • If safety information is too familiar, people won’t comply with it.
  • Warnings in outline form are more effective than those written in paragraphs.
  • The color red is associated with the highest hazard rating across all language groups.

Poster power

OSHA has no requirements for safety posters. In fact, you don’t need to have any at your worksite. However, most employers feel they are an important addition to their safety program. Getting employees to read them, though, is another story.

Posters must grab peoples’ attention. Several years ago, Prevent Blindness America promoted a poster that gave employees a choice between several types of protective eye gear, or a man with an eye patch, under the heading "Which Eyewear Would You Choose?" Such a hard-hitting message will likely shake up your workforce.

Keep interest in posters up by changing them frequently. Occasionally test employees to find out if they noticed the posters. Ask what messages they convey and award a small prize to anyone who remembers a poster’s slogan or copy. Create posters with photos of some of your employees. Have employees design their own posters and give an award for the best one.

Here are some other poster tips:

  • Put up posters when all the employees are around. Replacing posters during working hours will attract attention.
  • Don’t put a poster on a cluttered bulletin board. The message will be lost.
  • Attract attention by tilting the poster slightly or taping only three sides so it will make some movement.
  • Shift posters from one spot to another.
  • Don’t crowd posters together. Each poster should have its own location.

Looking good

Even safety posters, signs and tags need to be maintained. There’s nothing worse than a seedy-looking sign. Replace frayed and dirty signs. Over time, some signs may not even be pertinent. A sign posted on a wall that says "DANGER — High Voltage Equipment," when the equipment is no longer there, should be taken down. Employees will catch on quickly that signs are meaningless if they are not properly maintained.

Safety visuals can be an important addition to your safety program. But to be effective they must be used imaginatively and be accompanied by training and maintenance.


Originally written for Business & Legal Reports by freelance editor Marcia Wagshol, who contributes regularly to BLR’s OSHA Required Training for Supervisors and BLR’s Monthly Reminder. Marcia has also written for Ransom & Benjamin Publishers and Business Research Publications. For more information visit

SIDEBAR: The colors of safety

OSHA recommends the following basic scheme of hazard levels and colors for safety signage:

  • DANGER — Red or predominately red sign with lettering or symbols in black and white. These signs indicate immediate danger and that special precautions are necessary.

  • CAUTION — Yellow with black lettering to warn against potential hazards or unsafe practices.

  • WARNING — Orange with lettering or symbols in a contrasting color to represent a hazard level between DANGER and CAUTION.

  • BIOHAZARD — Fluorescent orange or orange red signs designate infectious agents that pose a risk of death, injury or illness.

  • SAFETY INSTRUCTION — Green with white lettering to provide general suggestions of safety measures.