Ever since we were kids, we’ve been exposed to colors that have special, intuitive meanings. The red traffic signal means stop, and the green one means go. Teaching those basic concepts to small children helps keep them safe, by creating a predetermined association for each color.

The same holds true in industrial environments, where color coding is, perhaps, more valuable today than ever before. Today’s industrial operations generally handle more hazardous materials than ever before, while working faster and leaner. In addition, the diversity of culture and background of the American workforce has probably never been wider. From a social standpoint, more workers today seem to communicate in their native language than at any time in the past, making in-plant hazard advisories that much more difficult.

So, color coding of hazards and emergency assets — which has been around through the efforts of OSHA and ANSI for years — is all the more appropriate.

Standard color codes

ANSI Standard Z535.1 establishes standardized Safety Color Codes for industrial purposes, while Standard Z535.2 establishes Environmental and Facility Safety Sign guidelines aimed at uniformity, including consistent color use and visual layout. Using the guidelines provided under the umbrella of Z535, numerous manufacturers and suppliers over the years have clarified an industry-accepted standard for color usage.

The basic colors and their intended applications are as follows:

Safety Red — The basic color for identification of fire protection equipment and apparatus, which is consistent with our understanding of these assets in our everyday lives. This color category also includes alarm boxes, blanket boxes, fire buckets/pails and fire extinguishers. Additionally, red is also to be used for emergency stop bars and buttons on hazardous machinery.

Safety Yellow — The basic color for designating caution and marking physical hazards, such as striking against, stumbling, falling, tripping and “caution in between.” It may also be used for storage cabinets and safety cans for flammable or corrosive materials, including explosives and other unstable materials. Solid yellow or yellow with black stripes or checkers may be used interchangeably to provide the most visually commanding application.

Safety Orange — Safety orange is the basic color for designating dangerous parts of machines and other energized equipment, which may cause injuries, including cuts, crushing, shocking or other contact-related injuries. This color is also used to alert the open state of equipment doors, which otherwise isolate internal gears, belts and other unguarded hazards.

Safety Blue — The chief function of safety blue is for informational signs and bulletin boards. Safety blue is also used for specific warning signs associated with railroad operations; warning not to use or move equipment under repair.

Safety Green — Safety green is the color used to designate “safety” and the location of first-aid and emergency response equipment, including drench showers and eyewashes. Additionally, ANSI Z535.2 (Section 5.5.1) includes provisions that emergency equipment signage signal words, such as “Eyewash,” use a safety green background with white lettering on a rectangular field.

Black with White or Yellow — Safety black, with safety white or safety yellow (in combination) are the colors designating traffic controls or other housekeeping markings. The preferred use of safety black with safety yellow is for traffic markings, while safety black with safety white use is reserved for information purposes.

Fluorescent Orange, Orange-Red — Used for labels and containers for blood and infectious waste. (Warning labels must be fluorescent orange or orange-red with the biosafety symbol in a contrasting color).

Magenta or Purple on Yellow — Used as a radiation caution, including x-ray, alpha, beta, gamma, neutron and proton radiation.

Color ID program

There are numerous reports of accident rates declining by as much as 40 percent when a color identification program, with companion training, is put into place. When dangerous parts, hazardous areas and materials are marked with attention-getting colors, when aisleways are outlined with zone marking lines, when injured employees instinctively head for the green signs and green emergency equipment, plant safety indices invariably rise. Make sure your employees are very familiar with safety color codes.