When Frank is preparing for work, he may be thinking about safety — donning his PPE, setting up his workplace correctly, and so on. But in the middle of the job, when his focus is on getting the job done, BAM — the hazard appears just at the moment when he wasn’t paying attention. He slips on the oily platform and falls 10 feet onto a concrete surface.

Here’s the problem: All of Frank’s knowledge of the hazard, the safe practice to avoid it, and everything else that was covered in his safety training was in his head; it just wasn’t accessible at the critical moment. His attention was on speed, quality and other performance metrics, and there wasn’t enough room to keep the oily floor constantly in mind. This is where safety signage can play a critical role. It can serve as a persistent reminder to workers to watch out for potential hazards.

Safety signage can serve another important purpose. While we train employees to avoid hazards they encounter on a regular basis, others hazards may come up rarely and don’t fit into our limited training budget. Or workers in unfamiliar locations may be unaware of the dangers located there. And what about visitors, who haven’t received safety training? In these instances, safety signage must play a more extensive role, not only reminding employees or visitors of the hazard, but also explaining what it is and how to avoid it.

In both of these cases, safety signage design is critical. Signage is only useful when it brings employees through the following four stages:

Stage 1: Notice
If the employee or visitor doesn’t see the sign, it can’t serve as a reminder or an information source. This may sound obvious, but the devil is in the details. What seems like a clear location during installation may not match the work context. For example, the employee may be looking in another direction during the actual work. Or the worker may be so used to the sign’s presence that he doesn’t notice it anymore — a process called habituation. Safety signs must be designed to avoid this. Signs should be located in the direct line of sight at the specific time where the hazard will be encountered. And they must be salient enough to attract attention on a regular basis.

Stage 2: Read
Just because the employee sees the sign, doesn’t mean he or she will read it. There is an unconscious cost/benefit analysis when employees see a safety sign. How much time and effort will it take to read? What benefits will it provide? When employees believe they are aware of all the hazards present, they may feel that reading the sign is unnecessary. Or if it is written in long sentences and small letters, it may seem like more effort than it’s worth. Low cost can be established by designing safety signage with quick, easy-to-read text and graphics. High value can be conveyed with sharp pictorials that convey an immediate sense of the hazard.

Stage 3: Understand
A quick glance at warnings on the average prescription drug container (which many of us don’t read for precisely this reason) is all we need to realize how complex safety information can be. Safety information often contains jargon, terminology that is incomprehensible to the typical shop floor employee, and obscure pictorials that look more like an alien attack than a safety hazard. Safety signs should provide the minimum amount of information necessary for the employee to avoid the hazard, and when writing the text, consider the reading level of the least educated employee who may encounter it.

Pictorials should be pre-tested to make sure they convey the necessary information to someone who has never seen it before.

Stage 4: Comply
The final stage is the most often overlooked. Just because the employee noticed, read and understood the sign, doesn’t mean it will elicit the desired response. Again, a cost/benefit analysis drives behavior. If the requirements of avoiding the hazard seem like more effort than they are worth, the employee may ignore them.

How many of us have heard the line, “I am just going in for a second. I will be careful. I don’t need a helmet/tagout/confined space permit/etc.” When designing the signage, it is important to convey the value of the safe practice for the employee. And try to create an easy process for compliance.

Final factors
When developing a signage program, consider the organizational culture of the workplace. If upper management and the safety team have done a good job of instilling safety as a core organizational value, then employees will be more likely to notice, read and comply with safety signs. A second consideration is that each worker’s individual risk-taking profile will affect his or her interactions with safety signs. While the safety team has no control over this second factor, it should be considered when designing and locating all safety signage.

Safety signs can only prevent injuries if workers notice, read, understand and comply with them. Otherwise, they are just pretty pictures on the wall. Ineffective signs also do not protect against legal liability because courts are able to recognize the difference. The return on investment of effective safety signs can be enormous in terms of greater productivity and reduced injury costs.