Signs and alarms come in such a multitude of forms. Consider the many varieties: warnings; cautionary statements; declarations of horrible consequence; specific directives, requirements and prohibitions; illustrations; lights, strobes, flashers and rotating beacons; bells, horns, whistles and sirens.

Consider the amount of thought, creative innovation and testing that has gone into this form of communication. The intention of which is to prompt some type of behavior, whether action or inaction:

  • Green light = go
  • Red light = stop
  • Yellow light = depends on how late one is
  • "No Smoking"
  • "Employees Only"
  • "Keep Hands Clear"

For our purposes, the accepted definitions for "sign" include: A posted command, warning or direction; a mark having a conventional meaning and used in place of words or to represent a complex notion. And for "alarm": A signal (as a loud noise or flashing light) that warns or alerts.

Responding to the signal

Now for signs and alarms to work as intended the written/illustrated sign or screaming/flashing alarm must provoke a "signal" in the receiver's brain that "indicates" necessary behavior. Most signs and alarms are effective in accomplishing this. It is what happens after the synapses fire that limits the effectiveness of signs and alarms.

Remember the chorus from the song "Signs"? "Sign, sign, everywhere a sign; Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind; Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?"

Recorded by "The Five Man Electrical Band" in 1971, their song seemed to convey distaste for certain signs, as well as a message to ignore them: "And the sign said anybody caught trespassin' would be shot on sight. So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house, 'Hey! What gives you the right?'"

He risked being shot on sight by not just yelling to the house, but he "jumped on the fence" too. Now, I would have interpreted the fence as being part of the property not to be trespassed upon, therefore jumping on it would have put me at risk. Of course, the landowner might not have included the fence, but I would not try to figure out property boundary rationale with someone who is willing to shoot first and ask questions later!

As safety professionals we certainly do not condone ignoring a sign that promises deadly consequences for specific actions. But still, there is a message for us in that song. And the message is: ___________________ (you fill in the blank).

Stumbling block

C'mon, think about it. . . What do we take for granted about signs and alarms, as well as instructions, standard operating procedures, directives and whatever else we may say to or tell people? What is one of the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to managing people?

That's right! I knew that you wouldn't disappoint me.

A good many people (more than the minority, close to the majority and, it is my belief, avid Jerry Springer and WWF fans) read and hear what they want to. They interpret signs and alarms according to their own agenda, regarding or disregarding as they see fit, thinking only of themselves and more than ready to blame someone/anyone/everyone else when their behaviors result in a negative outcome.

And the solution to this dilemma?

I really don't see that there is a clear-cut solution, as this is not confined to workplace safety. Our societies are becoming more and more uncivilized; the brutality that is broadcast all too regularly on network news channels has made it very necessary to develop and maintain a "self-interested" attitude.

I am not advocating "self-interest" to the exclusion of others; I am attempting to understand why we are faced with non-compliance issues and how to address employee safety.

No easy answer

I do not believe the solution involves making people fearful of consequences like death, dismemberment or horrible disfigurement. The initial shock of watching a safety "snuff" film or hearing a first-hand agonizing story of mistake and woe wears off quickly and then requires stronger and stronger images and tales in order to achieve fear and respect. And eventually people will become desensitized to it or refuse to watch or hear.

Nor do I believe that discipline is the key. It isn't merely a matter of safety, management approach or psychology. It has become societal, global and personal, and I really don't have any solutions.

What I am coming to recognize, for myself, are the definite signs that signal an internal, personal alarm that the future will be far different than any of us can imagine.

SIDEBAR: Types of signs

Temporary: Certain operations require the use of temporary visual warnings, such as a "wet floor" sign. Others applications include warnings placed at boundaries of electrical work areas, confined-space entry operations, or temporary containment for asbestos removal or chemical spill cleanup. If work exposes energized or moving parts that are normally protected, OSHA says danger signs must be temporarily displayed and barricades erected to warn others in the area.

Details: Beyond the typical "Notice" signs, there is sometimes the need for more detailed informational signs that provide complex instructions, such as posted operating instructions for equipment or processes. Plastic-laminated paper instruction can be used in areas that are clean and dry. Photoengraved metal signs will last longer, especially in areas that have wet or dirty operations.

Chemical hazards: OSHA's hazard communication standard requires that each container of hazardous chemicals is labeled, tagged, or marked. Identities of hazardous chemicals and appropriate hazard warnings, words, pictures, or symbols must provide at least general information regarding the hazards of the chemical.

Signs, placards, process sheets, batch tickets, operating procedures, or other written materials may be substituted for labels on individual stationary process containers, as long as this method identifies the container to which it is applied and provides the same information required on labels.

Small, portable containers, intended only for the immediate use of an employee and not for storage do not require labels. Existing labels on containers provided by the manufacturer may not be removed or defaced unless the container is immediately marked with the required information.

Public areas: Before working in the vicinity of vehicular or pedestrian traffic that might endanger employees, warning signs and/or flags or other traffic control devices must be displayed conspicuously to alert and channel approaching traffic. At night, warning lights must be prominently displayed.

- Marc Neuffer, a retired nuclear propulsion naval officer, is currently director of - a Web site that provides free safety information and tools to business and industry.