Safety Identification 101

Your safety program as a whole may be troubled if something as basic, yet important as a main exit remains unidentified.

AS a safety professional, you have learned how to quickly identify hazardous environments, led the effort in determining the best ways to protect your employees from those hazards, and spent countless hours training those same employees on everything related to safety. It's a safe bet you can probably recite an OSHA standard quicker than a quote from your favorite novel. But that's OK; safety is what you live for and what your fellow employees count on you to deliver.

Capturing employee attention is harder than ever. And with so many distractions at the workplace, both internal and external, concentration is more important than ever, whether the task is taking the time to correctly don a respirator or ensure that the chosen gloves will protect as needed. These otherwise simple steps can be quickly overlooked, resulting in unnecessary injury or death. But short of repetitive training, regular safety talks, presentations, and constant reinforcement, what else can be done to protect employees, contractors, and visitors?

Over many years, many approaches have been used to encourage employees to wear the proper personal protective equipment. But when asked why employees are not wearing PPE, you get answers such as: "I forgot," "It's uncomfortable," "Too warm," "Gets in my way," "This task doesn't require PPE," and many more. While many of these answers have some truth, we cannot ignore that PPE has a role in protecting a company's important contributing member, the employee. As safety professionals, our goal is to "zero" the chance of having injuries or deaths.

Getting a Handle
In the constant struggle to keep your employees safe, facility safety signage is an either overlooked, or in some cases overused, aspect of your overall safety program. Both can be detrimental to the safety program you have worked hard to establish. We will take a brief look at ways to implement a viable, successful safety signage program.

In almost every case, signage is reflective of your company-wide safety program. As touched on a moment ago, is your identification program overlooked? If so, are other parts of your program overlooked? True or not, this perception can be created if something as basic, yet important as a main exit remains unidentified. Or do you have areas that are haphazardly marked with multiple signs communicating essentially the same message?

As most of us know, maintaining a proper safety identification program can certainly be a challenge. In order to have a successful identification program, start by assigning responsibility for both the initial and ongoing activities that have to be undertaken to comply with OSHA standards. In some cases, these activities may be part of current job assignments. For example, safety supervisors are frequently responsible for on-the-job safety and training, but these should not be left to just one person. Assign responsibility to a group of employees and consider establishing a Safety Committee Group. This group can be all, or part, of your existing safety committee. Don't stop there; encourage involvement from every employee. With everyone's help in developing and maintaining your program, the end result will be a more effective identification program. Having a sense of ownership in the program will empower regular participation of your employees.

Getting Started
It's important to understand the regulations associated with key areas such as exit and egress, Hazard Communication, lockout/tagout, confined space, and more.

For any type of safety and health program, success depends on commitment at every level of the organization. And this is particularly true for safety identification programs, where success most 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, whether it is focused on Hazard Communication, lockout/tagout, or eye safety, to mention just a few.

If you're starting from the ground up, the best way to begin a safety identification program is by preparing a comprehensive list of signage that is based upon your internal procedures and is 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 message that is printed. Sometimes signs tend to blend into your everyday setting; use applicable OSHA headers as detailed in standard 29 CFR 1910.145. Strive to standardize identification throughout your facility, but don't stop there: Standardize your identification program corporate-wide. This eliminates any confusion when employees shift between locations.

How to Write an Effective Safety Identification Message
Designing a safety sign, tag, or label to relay important safety messages is critical in protecting employees and visitors around, or within, your facility. To make sure you are as effective as possible, here are a few simple suggestions 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; what's more, each contains a specific meaning or application:

DANGER--Danger headings indicate imminently hazardous situations that, if not avoided, will result in death or serious injury.

WARNING--Warning headings indicate a potentially hazardous situation that, if not avoided, could result in severe injury or death.

CAUTION--Caution headings indicate a potentially hazardous situation that, 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. It follows that the other headings should be carefully chosen to accurately depict the hazard at hand.

Special headings also can be helpful in portraying the importance of your message. These include SAFETY FIRST, RESTRICTED AREA, and THINK, among others.

Developing your message is at the heart of what you are seeking to accomplish. The main rule for message development is this: Brevity 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. Hazard description is often best achieved by using a pictorial symbol--and this is also important in a facility with a multilingual workforce.

Manufacturers of identification products have done most of this work for you; however, there will always be a need for identification that is customized for your facility.

Another tip is to construct sentences in the active voice.

Beginning Message

Suggested Message

YOU MUST SHUT THE MACHINE OFF TO SERVICE OR CLEAN

SHUT MACHINE OFF TO SERVICE OR CLEAN

Keeping your message short and distinct will help lead to a safer working environment. When designing your safety sign, eliminate excessive wordiness by omitting words such as "a," "the," "an," "this," "that," "they," "is," "are," and "were."

Beginning Message

Suggested Message

CLOSE THE VALVE THAT IS LOCATED UNDER THE MAIN CONDENSER

CLOSE VALVE UNDER MAIN CONDENSER

Another way to cut down on words is to use pictorial symbols. Pictorials represent an internationally understandable language that can immediately convey important information. By utilizing symbols, your workforce, regardless of nationality or reading ability, will be able to recognize important safety information quickly.

Now that you know the basic ropes, don't overlook budgeting for your identification needs. Work to have identification incorporated into your yearly safety or facility budget. By budgeting identification directly into your budget, you are building in flexibility for identification upgrades and providing funding when new hazards are in need of immediate identification.

Looking Forward
Take note of new identification trends. In just a few short years identification signs have taken a giant leap forward, providing critical information on more than just hazards. Signs now can provide key information on what types of gloves, respirators, safety shoes, or other safety products are required in and around your facility--all the way down to including the manufacturer logo and re-order number.

Technology is driving much of the progress in not only personal protective equipment, but also safety identification. As safety professionals, we need to recognize our responsibility to our company and fellow employees to reduce injuries and provide an overall safer working environment. That means keeping abreast of new standards, equipment, unique training programs, and safety identification.

This article appeared in the December 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

Stephanie Adams and Luann Lambert of Accuform Signs contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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