The Evolution of Safety Signs

Getting a third-party perspective can help you eradicate visual clutter, create consistency within your facility, and reduce overall costs.

Safety signs are one of the oldest types of safety equipment. Since the turn of the 20th century, they've played a pivotal role in preventing workplace injuries. Today, they remain an essential part of every industrial facility and save thousands of lives each year.

But the safety signs you see in your facility today are quite different from the ones that were hanging on the walls of industrial workplaces several decades ago. It has taken many years and numerous standardizations to get to where we are today, where safety signs can be universally understood by all individuals, regardless of their culture or language. Let's take a look back at how safety signs were introduced into facilities and examine the standards that pioneered the way to the visual communication systems we have today.

The Early Days of Safety Signage
In 1914, the Worker's Compensation Bureau published a pamphlet titled "Signs and Slogans," which advocated the use of DANGER safety signs in the languages of the workers. The pamphlet stated that safety signs were a necessity in the workplace, yet it did not provide any standard format or guidelines. The colors, text, and design of each sign were left up to the company.

It wasn't until 1941 that safety signage standards were introduced, in part due to the growing industrial revolution and the rise of accident rates. The American Standards Association (which would later become the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI) published ASA Z35.1 Specification for Industrial Accident Prevention Signs. This standard outlined specifications for safety sign design and introduced standard formats for DANGER signs, CAUTION signs, NOTICE signs, and EXIT signs, among others.

ASA Z35.1 was the standard that governed the industry for nearly 50 years. In fact, OSHA adopted it as the basis of its 29 CFR 1910 regulatory safety sign formats that were published in 1971, and those standards still remain in effect today.

ANSI Recommends Further Standardization
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. courts set a legal framework for liability involving the "duty to warn" and "inadequate warnings." Global trade skyrocketed, and the number of immigrant workers was steadily increasing. All of these changes affected safety signage, and soon graphics and symbols were being added to safety signs and product labels to break through language and literacy barriers among workers.

In response to these developments, the ANSI committee came back together to review its existing standard and revise it where necessary. The committee members discovered myriad inconsistencies among the labels and safety signs in use; colors, text, and graphics often varied from facility to facility. They deemed further standardization would be advisable for the industry, and the result was the first edition of the ANSI Z535 series in 1992.

In the years that followed, the ANSI Z535 committee continued to revisit the standards (typically every five to six years) as technology progressed. It developed new and improved methods for visually communicating safety information, including standardization of color, symbols, labels, tags, and text. By 2002, it had published one recommended format for facility safety signs, product safety labels, and temporary safety tags.

Signs of Globalization
While OSHA's safety sign standards remain the only enforceable regulations, ANSI Z535 is a voluntary consensus standard with increasing value in today's era of rapid globalization. In 2007, for example, ANSI published its Z535.4 edition, which announced harmonization with the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) 3864-2 label formats. This change signaled a historic step forward in international safety collaboration and initiated a new level of global best practice for safety signs, labels, colors, and symbols.

As these standards are slowly adopted on a global scale, the industry will inherit a universal way to convey safety messages. Whether it's a simple pictogram or the color used on a sign, individuals from around the world will be able to quickly understand the safety message a sign or symbol is communicating and then react accordingly.

Yet it's important to remember that global standardization does not mean every sign would look exactly the same. There will always be plenty of room for individual customization, which brings us to the next trend in modern safety signage: custom signs.

A Customizable Future for Safety Signs
Advances in digital technology and printing equipment have brought a new level of customization that was never before possible in the industry. Today, customizing a safety sign for your specific requirements is quick, easy, and surprisingly affordable. Customization is often a necessity to comply with the myriad of state and local laws regarding smoking and firearms possession, where the text can be very specific.

Leading sign suppliers and distributors now offer custom online design tools, allowing end users to create a made-to-order, high-quality sign online in minutes. They can choose from pre-formatted OSHA and ANSI signs or create their own sign format from scratch. These easy-to-use online tools let a user select the sign header (English or Spanish), pictogram, size, wording, and even the sign material.

For companies with in-house sign and label printers, customization is even more accessible. On-site printers can create multi-color ANSI and OSHA signs up to 10 inches wide. These machines are now available as stand-alone units with simple operating systems that anyone on staff can use. If you need a durable sign for harsh environments, you simply print the sign in house and attach it to a rigid sign blank for added durability.

The availability of custom signage has opened the door for companies to better tailor their messages to their facilities' specific hazards. You can easily add custom text and unique facility details that will make your signs more effective for your employees. Many companies incorporate their logos and brand colors into their safety signs to create a more professional and uniform look throughout a facility.

Safety Signage Audits
After taking a historical look at the transition of safety signs from the early days to current standards and best practices, it's even more evident how essential safety signs are in today’s industrial workplaces. They serve as early warning devices and alert workers to the different levels of hazards. Most importantly, they reduce accidents and protect lives.

To ensure that your facility is equipped with a compliant, up-to-date safety identification system, it's recommended to enlist the help of a third party for a safety signage audit. A safety expert can inspect your entire facility and assess your current safety signs for compliance and effectiveness. At the end of the audit, you should receive a comprehensive, photographic report with prioritized corrective actions for ANSI and OSHA compliance, as well as a complete list of signs and markers that could help you improve your facility’s safety signage.

Getting a third-party perspective can help you eradicate visual clutter, create consistency within your facility (and among multiple locations), and reduce your overall costs by improving productivity. It's the best way to rid your facility of antiquated safety signs, improve regulatory compliance, and boost safety awareness for the years ahead.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Tom Smith is the group product marketing manager at Brady Worldwide, Inc. He is responsible for the safety and facility identification products at Brady and offers more than 20 years of experience in developing effective product solutions and tools for industrial, commercial, and construction markets. For more information on safety signs, including custom sign options and sign audits, visit

Product Showcase

  • Industrial Vacuum Cleaners

    Industrial Vacuum Cleaners

    VAC-U-MAX industrial vacuum cleaners for combustible dust, flammable liquid, and reactive powder are ATEX-certified and do not require electricity for operation—only compressed-air. These Intrinsically-Safe Systems come complete with vacuum cover, collection drum, tool kit, vacuum hose, and dolly—and do not release thermal or electric energy which can cause ignition. For more information and RFQ visit or call (800) VAC-U-MAX. 3

  • Safety Training

    Safety Training

    Become a Master of Safety Training. Take your safety training from good to great with SafeStart. Improve your personal training skills, discover the training principles that offer maximum impact, and learn the secrets of training for relevance and results. Start delivering top-notch safety training—download the guide today. 3

  • Make selection & use of SRLs simpler with the new V-SHOCK line

    Make selection & use of SRLs simpler with the new V-SHOCK line

    The new MSA V-SHOCK EDGE Cable SRLs and Web PFLs for Leading Edge use are designed for simplicity and hassle-free safety. V-SHOCK EDGE solutions help make PPE selection on the jobsite quick and easy with color-coded housings, clear icons on labels, and clearance charts in the label pack. 3