In the constant struggle to keep employees safe, facility safety signage is often overlooked or overused. Both ends of the spectrum can be a detriment to the safety program you have worked hard to establish.

If something as basic, yet important, as an exit remains unidentified, it can create the perception — true or not — that safety is not a priority. And if you have areas haphazardly marked with multiple signs communicating essentially the same message, the safety message may be lost in the clutter.

Maintaining a proper safety identification program can certainly be a challenge. Start by assigning responsibility for both the initial and ongoing activities that must be undertaken to comply with OSHA standards. Consider establishing a “Safety Committee Group.” Don’t stop there; encourage involvement from every employee. More employee buy-in will ultimately result in a more effective identification program. If you are not sure where to start, ask your safety distributor or a manufacturer of safety signs. Many can assist by surveying your facility and your current signs to help determine what you need.

As with any safety and health program, success depends on commitment at every level of the organization. For safety identification programs, success often requires a change in overall behavior. This will occur only if employers and employees understand the program and are committed to its success. Helping employees to recognize and understand safety signage should be a key part of every company training program.

Diving in

If you’re starting from the ground up, begin by preparing a comprehensive list of signage needed in your facility. Survey your workplace. Take notes of where current signage is located, its condition, visibility, and where signage is lacking. Look around. Identify chemicals in containers, fire extinguishers, evacuation routes, exits, pipes, first aid and eyewash stations, and potentially hazardous equipment or work areas.

Look for old and/or faded signage. Signs in poor condition reflect “non-importance” of the printed message. Sometimes, signs blend into your everyday setting. Strive to standardize identification throughout your facility and corporate-wide. This eliminates confusion when employees shift between locations.

The sign basics

Standardize your program by giving your signs a consistent look and feel, incorporating corporate branding where possible.

When designing a safety sign, tag or label, be as effective as possible. Here are a few “sign basics” for creating the best safety messages.

Signs with headings, or signal words, often get noticed first. OSHA or ANSI style headings can add important, attention-getting impact to safety signs, and each contains a specific meaning or application:

DANGER: Indicates imminently hazardous situations which, if not avoided, will result in death or serious injury.

WARNING: Indicates a potentially hazardous situation which, if not avoided, could result in severe injury or death.

CAUTION: Indicates a potentially hazardous situation which, if not avoided, may result in minor or moderate injury.

NOTICE: Indicates a statement of company policy directly or indirectly related to the safety of personnel or protection of property.

Hazard levels should not be overstated or understated. For example, the overuse of “Danger” to identify non-life threatening hazards can dilute the intended importance of “Danger” as a signal word for life-threatening hazards. Headings should be carefully chosen to accurately depict the hazard at hand.

Special headings can also be helpful in portraying the importance of your message; some of these include SAFETY FIRST, RESTRICTED AREA, and THINK.

The main rule for message development is: succinctness is best. The message should be a concise statement of the action, or precautionary measures, necessary to avoid the hazard. It normally does not describe the hazard.

Manufacturers of identification products have done most of this work for you by developing and stocking an assortment of sign designs, legends and layouts; however, there will always be a need for customized identification. If you are looking to create a custom sign, here is a simple example:



Alternative More Impactful Message: Shut machine off to service or clean (with symbol or personalized image).

Eliminate unnecessary words like “a”, “the”, “an”, “this”, “that”, “they”, “is”, “are”, and “were”. The Federal Highway Administration says switching from uppercase letters to a combination of upper and lower will improve safety. It says studies show motorists find it easier to read lowercase signs. The same has been cited for safety signs and this is evident with ANSI-style signs.

Another way to cut down on words is to use pictorials, and utilize full-color imagery on your identification products. Something as simple as a no-smoking symbol on a sign or a full-color image of an employee responsible for lockout/tagout on a tag can make a big difference.

Pictorials represent an internationally understandable language that can immediately convey important information. Virtually all manufacturers use a consistent library of recognized pictorials — and this is important for consistent and easy recognition. By utilizing symbols, your workforce, regardless of nationality or reading ability, will be able to quickly recognize important safety information by sight.

Don’t overlook budgeting for your identification needs. Work to have identification incorporated into your yearly safety or facility budget. By budgeting for identification, you build in flexibility for upgrades and for funding when new hazards present immediate identification needs.

Moving forward

In just a few short years, while OSHA standards related to identification have remained stagnant, safety identification has taken giant leaps forward, providing critical information on more than just hazards and communicating more than just safety. Signs can provide key information on what types of safety equipment are required in and around your facility, all the way down to including your logo and re-order number for the benefit of company pride and your maintenance or purchasing teams.

Today, technology is driving much of the progression in safety identification. As safety professionals, it is our responsibility to keep abreast of safety identification trends.

Supplying the proper signage in the proper place is not enough to keep employees safe. We need to find additional ways to keep personnel up-to-date, conscious, consistently motivated, and aware of their fellow employees and surroundings, while performing everyday tasks. The biggest risk we want to avoid is personal injury; but additional considerations include damage to machinery, downtime on the line, and experience modification factor — all of which hit the bottom line.

Signage that informs, protects and motivates your workforce is a step in the proper direction for your safety program. Utilization of classic headers, high-quality digital imagery, text that your workforce will understand, front gate to back dock consistency, and messages that are changed regularly, will ultimately show your workforce that safety is priority number one.