Putting the Right Signs in the Right Places

Enlist a safety team. Push your managers, machine operators, and safety personnel to gain a broad perspective on warehouse, assembly, and other manufacturing equipment and operations.

If safety is your business, you probably obsess about attending to every detail related to your plant, from the dripping water cooler in the breakroom to the welder who refuses to wear his protective goggles.

Hearing that more than 4,000 fatal work injuries were reported in the United States in 2010 (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) is disappointing. After all, your company is ahead of the curve on safety. You conduct weekly safety committee meetings. You've never had a surprise visit from OSHA.

So maybe this article isn't for you. But if you walk into your building and feel, for even the slightest second, that things aren't quite as safe and secure as they can be, then read on, because having a passion for safety is just the beginning. You need the right tools to create a safe environment, and signs and labels can help make a safe environment a reality.

There's a lot to learn about creating effective signs and labels and knowing where signs and labels can make the most impact.

One indispensable tool for any safety manager is a thermal transfer printer for generating safety signs and labels. With a thermal transfer printer, you can print on polyesters, polyimides, reflective films, and vinyls that are resistant to UV, water, chemicals, and abrasion. Inkjet printers, by comparison, are limited as to what they can print on. Where safety is critical, thermal printers generally make labels with crisp, clear text and images, improving the clarity and readability of the label. Printers with OSHA-compliant templates make this process easy. You may select the layout, text and symbol, printer speed, and quantity of labels.

For maximum visibility, 9-inch printers can create huge signs and labels -- particularly impactful when communication must be visible at enormous distances, such as Boeing's manufacturing site, which encompasses more than 4.3 million square feet, and a Hershey, Pa. plant that covers 2 million square feet of manufacturing space. In other cases, signs should be easy to read in bright sunshine. It all depends on the application.

Assessing Signage Locations
Let's say you're armed with a thermal transfer printer and ready to make your site super safe. Before getting started, conduct a facility audit. Survey your facility's danger zones as though you're preparing for a surprise visit from OSHA. Take these steps:

  • Enlist a safety team. Push your managers, machine operators, and safety personnel to gain a broad perspective on warehouse, assembly, and other manufacturing equipment and operations.
  • Lay out facility drawings in computer-aided drafting (CAD) software so your floor plan can be easily shared and revised with input from team members.
  • Take a walking and talking tour. If your facility has a mezzanine level, take a view from above for a better perspective.
  • Identify each area's function, installations, and equipment.
  • List signage required for each area.

Now, check locations where proper signs and labels should be placed:

  • Areas housing machinery and production equipment or laboratories
  • Staging areas for raw and packing materials, shelving, and aisles for product inventory and fulfillment
  • Front office areas, including exits and entrances, restrooms, and directions for visitors, meeting rooms, and operational hours
  • Outdoors areas for electrical panels, facility identification, traffic flow

Consider these commonly used labels and signs:

  • Pipe markers
  • Equipment marking
  • Tank and vessel signs
  • Right-To-Know labels
  • Lockout/tagout labels and tags
  • Aisle and floor marking
  • Safety showers/eyewash
  • Electrical marking (arc flash, general warning signs)
  • Valve identification
  • Exit and evacuation escapes and doors
  • Hazardous waste
  • Fire protection
  • Rack and bin labeling
  • Machine troubleshooting processes
  • Start-up and shutdown procedures
  • Assembly line operations and procedures

Printer Supplies
We talked about the thermal transfer printer, where and when signs and labels make sense, and touched on the kinds of supplies available. There's much more.

The printer ribbon ink and supply are as important as the printer itself. Choose the wrong ribbon, and your message won’t adhere to the supply. Choose the wrong supply, and your label or sign will fade, erode, or dissolve from chemical exposure. To get even more detailed, consider the supply's topcoat -- the printable surface of a supply. This surface may be a polish, matte, or satin coating. Special topcoats have been specifically engineered to improve the bond between the ribbon and the supply for greater printability and chemical and abrasion resistance.

Printer supplies must perform under the most demanding climates and environmental conditions and deliver lasting performance on surfaces such as oily drums, electrical panels, and on freezing pipes. Outdoor labels must stand up to the punishment created by UV light, which can cause fading over time. Using the right materials is crucial for safety labels to deliver their message over extended periods.

Just as you don't take shortcuts with safety, you should not take shortcuts when making safety signs and labels. When in doubt, consult with your printer supplier to be sure the supply you are using is appropriate.

Key Safety Labeling Applications
Three key industrial safety labeling applications are arc flash, confined spaces, and machine guarding. Each can be deadly.

An arc flash is an electrical explosion that results from a low impedance connection to ground or another voltage phase in an electrical system. Besides generating enough heat to melt most anything within the vicinity, arc flashes create waves of pressure that radiate outward, propelling any substance in their trajectory. These pressure waves quite often turn loose objects into shrapnel, which could severely injure anyone nearby.

Arc flash labels warn employees, contractors, vendors, inspectors, and visitors to stay away from equipment that presents an arc flash danger. Arc flash labels also inform workers about personal protective equipment.

Many workplaces contain confined spaces, such as underground vaults, tanks, and storage bins. Deaths from confined space incidents consistently make OSHA's top 10 list. "We have a water treatment plant that processes all the water that the paint department disposes," said Alan Flores Saldivar of Wolseley Integrated de Mexico SA de CV, a Wolseley Industrial Group Company. "When conducting maintenance, our people discovered the walls of the pit they were going to clean were covered with paint that produces a lot of static. Being a confined space, they needed special equipment and chemicals like chlorine and acids to clean the space. It was suggested that this confined space should be properly identified and labeled with every risk."

Moving machine parts may cause severe workplace injuries, such as crushed fingers or hands, amputations, burns, or blindness. Safeguards are essential for protecting workers from these preventable injuries. Any machine part, function, or process that may cause injury must be guarded and labeled.

"Hazard notification signage is crucial for machine guarding and chemical notification," said Health & Safety Manager Neil Smith of CB Richard Ellis. "The proper placement of signs warning of hazards is essential to ensure that guarding systems aren’t compromised."

Common Mistakes
Despite the best intentions, we all make mistakes. Enlisting an impartial party to review safety sign placement can help.

"One facility forgot to relocate exit signs following a renovation. Exits either literally led you around in circles or pointed you to a brick wall from two different sides," said Smith. "Fire extinguisher location signs often are blocked or not visible. Sometimes fire extinguishers are placed in locations approved by a regulatory jurisdiction but can’t be found because cubicles hide them."

For signs and labels to succeed, everyone must have a passion for keeping each other safe. Keep safety active by tracking near misses, first aid administered, and injuries on a CAD layout to determine whether additional signs are needed in a given area. Use that information to make changes to prevent these incidents from recurring. If an associate sees an unsafe situation, it is his or her responsibility to make management aware of it so corrective actions can be taken.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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