OSHA gave an October 2010 date to complete analyzing comments submitted in 2008 about a proposed confined spaces rule for the construction industry.

Here's Your Sign to Make Changes

Good intentions aside, make sure your shop has a plan of action for correct and appropriate safety signs and signals for various uses.

The shop looked like a bad comedy spoof to me: Old signage from a range of decades was everywhere. Taped sheets of yellowed paper with faded, scribbled warnings and misshapen metal signs (bent from years of being in the way or blocking guards on machinery) were visible. Orphan signs, with no apparent reason for where they were posted, warned of hazards moved years before. Some signs seemed to contradict each other because they were neighbors yet bore opposing messages.

What probably began as well-meaning efforts had grown into a signage chaos that served no useful purpose and actually impaired safety. We safety professionals have seen such shops with either homemade or prepackaged safety signs used as "all purpose" safety program cornerstones. While such efforts are noble, they fail miserably without pre-planning and follow-up to ensure the goal of safety signage was actually met.

Good intentions aside, make sure your shop has a plan of action for correct and appropriate safety signs and signals for various uses.

One of the oldest and often most reliable methods of conveying a specific message is to use appropriate signage in the workplace. Whether you employ printed, stationary signs or the constant motion of the new-age message boards, signage is the fastest and most direct mode of communication when used correctly and consistently. Just one (correct) word, a signal word, indicates a specific hazard or conveys a warning, such as DANGER, CAUTION, or WARNING with associated colors. These are extremely useful in most industries.

ANSI defines a safety sign as "a visual alerting device which advises the observer of a potential hazard." Such signs range from a lone word, such as EMERGENCY, to a combination of a picture and targeted wording -- for example, a picture of safety shoes and the wording Safety Shoes Required reminds workers of immediate hazards in the workplace, special instructions, etc.

Often safety efforts take time and training to fully implement, such as the newer standards for lockout/tagout and confined spaces. It takes effort to both enforce and encourage use of the signs/tags needed for a successful program. Implementing new signs as part of the educational measures for a new standard is a great assistance to your employees when it is needed. Signage is a visual reminder of specific safety measures to take to self-protect or safeguard others.

If you're not sure what must cover, go to www.osha.gov for the actual codes. ANSI.org has a great deal of important information on specific items, as well. A quick review of your favorite online and print sign store catalog also will provide standardized, easy-to-follow guidelines.

While a picture is worth a thousand words, in the old adage, a well-placed picture with correct words could be worth a life in the workplace. Many safety standards are written in the blood of occupational accidents and fatalities, and correct use of signage and signals for your industry will save lives and reduce injuries if you plan ahead. Consider the following:

Are your facility's safety signs/signals:

  • Effective. If a visitor or new employee walks through your facility, do the signs make sense? Do they assist in the safety education of employees?
  • Visible. Are signs consistent in materials, size, shape, and wording so they are easily recognizable to others?
  • Durable. Do your signs hold up to the wear and tear of the workplace? Are they non-fading? Protected from physical damage such as scratches and from employee tampering?
  • Consistent. Are your signs placed consistently throughout the facility for targeted hazards? Can your employees count on your signs being where they are needed?
  • Helpful. They must not create a hazard by being there. Signs should not block the hazard (as often seen with machine guarding signs placed by well-intentioned employers). Other signs are too low, creating a strike hazard for taller employees. Make sure the location maintains appropriate distance from the hazard while alerting employees of the hazard.
  • Easy to understand. Where needed, use cheat sheets or cards for employees as reminders to ensure consistency of application. One great example is standardized crane hand signals. By providing this, not only do you enhance the safety of your workforce, but also you decrease product damage and lost time.

Ordering custom signs, preprinted signal reminder cards, unique signs, etc. is as easy as ordering a pizza nowadays. A wide selection is also available locally at big box stores or hardware locations. The new materials are lightweight, highly reflective, fade resistant, very durable, and cost a fraction of older signs. The industry has met and exceeded market demands with innovations such as "living signs" that constantly scroll messages and alerts for employees, emergency notification kiosks, and more. Some signs self illuminate with no additional power needed. Tags are super-lightweight and reinforced, often with company information or employee contact numbers (useful in lockout/tagout). Pocket cards, such as those used for lifting signals, are heavy duty and laminated.

Safety professionals rarely think of signs as glamorous. Maybe we should; after all, there are few such low-cost safety measures that provide such long-lasting safety results with almost no maintenance. Used in your workplace, they help you educate employees 24/7 with no additional staff time invested, other than casual inspection. Few safety initiatives provide that sort of bang for the buck. Have you reviewed your safety signage lately? Today is a great day to start!

Safety Signs Checklist

True/False Your company has evaluated all potential safety hazards and posted appropriate signage for machinery and processes, with hazards documented in order to ensure follow-up corrective measures.

True/False Safety sign/signal usage is part of your comprehensive safety policy and program efforts and is a priority for all managers and supervisors.

True/False All areas of production have been evaluated, including emergency needs and unique hazards, for needed signs and signals. This includes newer OSHA standards where employees may need reinforced education.

True/False An established selection process is in place for new signs to be installed, and follow-up is made to ensure it is being used correctly and is effective.

True/False Each supervisor/manager has been briefed/trained on the appropriate use of safety signs in his/her work area and correct use in maintaining a safe workplace.

True/False Supervisors/managers ensure appropriate signs for specific hazards are posted in areas where required and do not remove them without adequate cause.

True/False Supervisors/managers ensure emergency signs, first aid signs, exit signs, etc. are in place and maintained with needed items related to them, including first aid kits, drenching and eyewash stations, portable solutions, and emergency response measures.

True/False Where needed, signs/signals are provided in multiple languages for multicultural workforces. Accessibility needs, such as ADA requirements for hearing/visually impaired employees, are considered.

True/False The various safety signs used at your facility are reviewed regularly to ensure consistent visual references are provided facility-wide: targeted pictures, colors, wording, language, and locations for all employees.

True/False There is a written policy on use/installation of any safety sign and how it relates to your safety program elements. This policy is reviewed and updated regularly or as needed by a skilled safety professional.

True/False Old or outdated signs are removed from service/disposed of after review.

True/False Employees are trained in recognition, purpose, and what is required as it relates to each sign. For example, employees understand that where an eye protection sign is in place, they must use appropriate eye/face protection PPE.

True/False Visitors or temporary employees or vendors also understand the safety signs at your facility. Signs are in language(s) or use pictures easily understood by employees.

True/False Appropriate PPE items are available in sizes needed for employees if there are signs posted to require their use in the facility.

True/False All fire exits are adequately marked for quick evacuation.

True/False Exit signs are illuminated where required within your facility and are inspected regularly.

True/False Every employee is advised of the requirement to follow the directions of safety signage and what each means. This is documented, whether in initial orientation, on-the-job training, etc.

True/False Correct signs and signals are updated with other awareness items as needed or as hazards change or increase.

True/False There are methods to explain to non-English-speaking, hearing-/visually impaired, or illiterate employees what the signs mean if their meaning is not readily apparent. They are allowed the opportunity to ask questions.

True/False The program's success is reviewed and changes are made as needed to keep progressing toward improved safety and fewer injuries at your workplace.

True/False Your facility safety professionals are trained and skilled at recognizing and correcting hazards and providing proactive leadership for the selection and location of any safety sign or signal.

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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