Stop! Don't Ignore the Value of Safety Signs

During training, you'll want to emphasize how signs, labels, and markings affect the employees themselves.

Ideally, the workplace would be hazard-free and safe from potential injuries and accidents. However, many operations involve a certain amount of risk that cannot be controlled through engineering measures, administrative controls, or personal protective equipment. These situations require careful measures to prevent workplace accidents and injuries. The value of safety signs in these situations shouldn’t be ignored.

Colors can help employees quickly determine the type of hazard present in any given situation. The color of the sign will also help them decide how to respond to and approach the situation. It’s important to be consistent with your color usage throughout the facility.

Red identifies FIRE, DANGER, or STOP. It is most commonly used in flammable liquid identification, emergency stop switches, and fire protection equipment. Danger indicates an immediately hazardous situation that could cause death or serious injury.

Orange indicates WARNING. Orange identifies hazardous equipment or situations. Common uses include marking machine hazards that pose cut, crush, or pinch injuries and for marking the insides of movable guards that allow access to gears, chains, and the like. Warning indicates a potentially hazardous situation that could result in death or serious injury.

Yellow denotes CAUTION. Used with black lettering, yellow identifies hazards such as conditions that might result in tripping or falling or flammable materials storage. Caution indicates a potentially hazardous situation that may result in moderate injury.

Green denotes SAFETY. Green identifies the location of safety equipment, material safety data sheets, and first aid equipment.

Blue indicates NOTICE. It is the color that identifies safety information signs, such as PPE requirements.

You aren’t necessarily always required to use these safety colors, but it’s a good idea for your company to have set parameters for sign color. Also note that OSHA does identify when to use red and yellow in 29 CFR 1910.144.

Shapes and Symbols In addition to sign color coding, symbols and shapes also contribute to a sign’s meaning. These are essential to sign viewers. Certain sign shapes are used to convey specific information:

Triangle- or diamond-shaped signs are used for hazard alerts and will usually use orange or yellow for their color.

Circular symbols are mandatory actions, such as those used to inform workers of the necessity for PPE, and are typically blue.

Square- or rectangular-shaped signs provide information. For example, signs indicating safety equipment locations would be found in a square or rectangle and are usually green.

Certain workplace prohibitions may be identified by posting a sign containing a symbol in a circle with a slash going from the upper left to lower right (e.g., a no smoking sign).

When practical, a symbol or a combination of a symbol and words are used in place of words alone because symbols carry universal meaning. Symbols allow fast communication of hazards and information. You may use three types of signs: one-, two-, or three-panel.

• One-panel signs will have only either words or graphics.

• Two-panel signs will have either words and graphics or a key word in large letters and more words in smaller letters.

• Three-panel signs will have a key word, smaller words, and graphics.

Language Many OSHA regulations call for the use of English markings. However, increasingly, workplaces employ more and more people who speak and read only foreign languages or cannot read at all. Employers and government agencies are beginning to realize there is a language barrier that accounts for greater rates of injury and illness for those who do not understand English. One solution may be to select sign formats that incorporate English and another primary language, such as Spanish.

Four Steps to Using the Right Signs

Signs, signals, tags, and barricades are critical to the safety of manufacturing employees. It is important to know how each is used and which regulations must be followed. The dangers present in a particular area determine the required signage you need. You should also have a professional conduct a safety audit of your facility to help you with your signage compliance.

The following guidelines will help you determine which safety signs and markings your company needs to be a safe, compliant work environment:

When conducting a safety audit of your facility, remember to start in the parking lot and outlying workspaces, then work your way into office and warehouse space. Check whether your parking signs are the correct size and material. Parking lot signs should be at least 18 by 12 inches and made of aluminum. Other non-office buildings that may require safety signs are maintenance sheds, waste storage areas, and loading docks. If any hazardous chemical is stored in these areas, you will need to obtain biological hazard signs and mount them in an easily visible location near the chemicals. Any hazardous waste must also be clearly labeled on the container and distinguished from nonhazardous waste.

Most warehouse settings have a similar set of safety sign requirements. Forklifts and loading docks frequently present potential carbon monoxide hazards. These areas need to be marked clearly with warning signs and equipped with fire extinguishers. Aisles should be kept clear of obstructions, and the use of floor marking tape is highly recommended. Other specific hazards to look out for are proper attire and footwear requirements, electrical panels that need high voltage signs and a clearance area, overhead storage compartments that need load capacity signs, and process pipes that need pipe markers.

If your facility has a compressed gas storage area, make sure you are storing your gases in a safe, compliant manner. Common gases that are stored in these types of areas are oxygen, LP gas, acetylene, and hydrogen. Oxygen cylinders need to be separated from fuel-gas cylinders or any other combustible material at a minimum of 20 feet or by a non-combustible barrier that is at least 5 feet tall. You should consider marking designated areas with hazard marking tapes to avoid confusion and to make this potentially dangerous workspace as safe as possible.

Chemical storage areas can be the most dangerous places in most pipeline and gas facilities. Placing the correct warning signs and markers around chemicals is essential to maintaining safety. Have a chart on the wall that identifies all hazards in the area so it is clear where potential danger exists. Fire extinguishers and non-smoking signs must be present and easily viewable in all chemical storage areas, spray booth operations, and welding areas. Non-smoking signs must prohibit smoking within 50 feet of any chemical storage container. Whenever chemicals are transferred from larger containers to smaller ones used in other areas of the facility, you must label the small containers with the correct chemical and hazard labels.

In addition to all of the safety signs described above, there are specific sign requirements for cranes, biohazard labs, kitchens, and any potentially dangerous area. To make sure your facility meets OSHA and ANSI standards, it is important to get a professional audit. Once you know exactly which signs and markers you need, you can obtain them from an OSHA sign provider, either locally or online.

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Consistency with safety colors and shapes also can influence a non-English speaking employee’s understanding of a sign. Once adequately trained, the employee will know that a red sign likely means he needs to stop.

Training Under 29 CFR 1910.145(c), OSHA requires you to instruct employees that:

Danger signs indicate an immediate danger and special precautions are necessary; and

Caution signs indicate a possible hazard against which proper precaution should be taken.

However, an effective training program for signs, labels, and other markings will go beyond these simple instructions. Specifically, the training will include the following elements:

Marking types (sign, label, tag, barricade, signal, marker, placard, and marking);

Message types (prohibition, alert, instruction, and information);

Signal words (danger, warning, caution, notice, and safety instruction);

Languages used (English, Spanish, and other languages);

Safety symbols (slow-moving vehicle, biological hazard, radio frequency, radiation, testing laboratory, ISO and ANSI safety symbols, etc.);

Marking shapes (triangle, diamond, circle, circle with slash, square, and rectangle);

Safety colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, black, white, and color combinations); and

Company marking systems (DOT, ANSI, NFPA, HMIS III®, military, etc.).

During training, you’ll want to emphasize how signs, labels, and markings affect the employees. This will give your training session more impact. Employees who understand that they have a role in their own safety probably will take the training more seriously.

Requirements Does your facility have all of the required signs, labels, and markings? Throughout the 29 CFR 1910 regulations, there are many different types of labeling and marking requirements, from wall placards to confined space signs to lockout/tagout markings. You will need to review the regulations that apply to your facility. Examples of OSHA regulations include, but are not limited to:

Walking working surfaces: 1910.22

Exit routes: 1910.37

Compressed gases: 1910.101 and 1910 .1200

Fire protection (extinguishers): 1910.157 You may also find the following consensus standards helpful:

ANSI Z535.1: American National Standard for Safety Color Code;

ANSI Z535.2: Environmental and Facility Safety Signs;

ANSI Z535.3: Criteria for Safety Symbols;

ANSI Z535.4: American National Standard for Product Safety Signs and Labels;

ANSI Z535.5: Safety Tags and Barricade Tapes (for Temporary Hazards);

ANSI A13.1: Scheme for the Identification of Piping Systems; and

Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Be aware that some consensus standards have requirements you must follow because they are adopted by reference in federal and state regulations.

The Bottom Line Look around your facility. While certain signs are necessary and required, in many cases, common sense will tell you where to use them to inform and protect employees.

When employees know the dangers, they can take actions to prevent serious injuries and damage to products, equipment, and the facility. Effectively using safety signs means not only posting them where required, but also making sure your employees know what they mean!

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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