Make sure signs are appropriate for the need. If equipment is relocated or upgraded or replaced, make the change to the sign that fits the current equipment.

Tips for Getting Your Message Across

You owe it to your employees to take another look at the signs you currently have in place. Are they clear? Are they necessary? Are they accurate?

Most employees, at one time or another, have worked in an organization that has been communication challenged. Fatigue, being in a rush, or other distractions cause workers not to pay close attention to the work at hand.

As safety professionals charged with the task of creating a safe working environment, we turn to signals or signs to alert, educate, announce, and warn employees of a hazard or situation. Signs quickly and directly communicate the most important safety information in the workplace, reducing long codes to a simple one or two word "reminder." As busy professionals who can't be everywhere constantly singing the safety song, we rely on these tools to convey a specific message that could be the difference between life and death or daily reminders of a mistake, such as lost fingers or permanently impaired vision.

Signs also present our employer's policies, state and federal laws, and even reinforce behaviors that should be common sense (which we all know is growing less and less common).

Start at the Beginning...
You are the safety expert at your facility and so are the lead person, along with management, to make decisions. Gone are the days of homemade signs, posters, and some hyperactive employee buying "something" to look safety aware. Know the codes and signage needed for the apparent and unapparent hazards. Start with www.osha.gov and the many resources there. For additional visual ideas, materials, and options, review the many online and printed catalogs from premier safety signage and labeling companies. Many have specific guidelines that may apply to your operation. Not sure of all of the potential resources? Check your favorite safety magazine resource or buyer's guide for a full listing at your fingertips. Safety is getting easier with the technology we have today!

It's a Balance...
There is a fine line between effective signage and too much or too little signage. Codes and regulations determine minimum requirements, but beyond that it is up to safety management to implement signs and signals in the best way for the organization.

Quick, simple, and direct usually works better than long and detailed, especially because signs are often read on the go. Pictures and international symbols are usually preferred over words in a multilingual or less-educated work population where added explanation, translation, or additional signs can be avoided. Use bright colors to your advantage to get the message across to the workers.

What?
However the information is presented, clarity is the key. Don't leave the worker any doubt about what message is being delivered, and be specific enough to not allow for wiggle room or gray areas.

Danger: High Voltage, Caution: Radiation Area, STOP, Exit, Hard Hat Area, and Oxygen Storage are all examples of a clearly directed message, especially when combined with a graphic to support the wording. Danger, Caution, or Warning without listing the specific hazard may be too vague and leave the worker wondering where the specific hazard lies. And location is critical; to make a positive difference, safety signage has to be in the correct proximity to the hazard.

Accuracy...
Make sure signs are appropriate for the need. If equipment is relocated or upgraded or replaced, make the change to the sign that fits the current equipment.

Legacy signs that provide misinformation can be worse than having no sign at all. An example of this would be an Exit sign left over from a previous building layout that no longer leads to an exit (or is blocked or chained shut).

Unnecessary signs can do more harm than good. I understand we live in a CYA (cover your "ahem" important parts) culture, but to label everything is counterproductive. Work spaces loaded with signs will start to look like racecars covered with sponsorships –- pretty, but too busy to be taken seriously. These signs packed into an area will go unread or the employee may pick and choose which to read at random, possibly missing the most important information.

Carefully select signs beyond those that are required. For example, do your staffers read the "reality" of the signs in your workplace? Flammable Storage or High Explosives, etc. should also alert them: No flames, smoking, etc. in the area. Make it plain by purchasing the correct signage that covers the situation completely. Think through the hazard with the innocence of a new employee, not with your vast safety experience.

Don't Forget the Training...
Explain to workers what the signs mean to them. Ensure language and visual and hearing loss barriers are resolved by providing appropriate training/awareness in the form needed, such as a written handout, a tailgate meeting, team mentoring, and even tests for high-injury areas.

It makes a positive difference to the workers, and reinforces your facility safety effort. Document your efforts.

Disappearing Signs...
Keeping the safety messages noticeable is a real challenge. That banner in your warehouse rafters with the company safety slogan? It hasn't been noticed since the ceremony to put it up there. The bulletin board in the break room covered in OSHA information and winners from the safety poster contest? That quickly went unnoticed, too.

Safety posters turn into wallpaper after a few weeks. They just fade into the background and go unread, unnoticed. Rotating these safety messages among different locations (locker room, front entrance, break room, etc.) will buy them a little more shelf life, but not much unless you keep updating them.

With technology as our friend, we now have the ability, at a very affordable price, to get our unique safety messages across using a computer, presentation software, and a television/monitor. Safety reminders, policy changes, flu shot notices, weather alerts, scheduling changes, training classes, and more can be easily presented to everyone you are trying to reach. It is easy to make digital slides, changing every few seconds, both eye catching and up to date. There should be no more excuses of "I didn't get the memo."

Signage is one of the most important aspects of a safe work environment and as the employee responsible for employee safety, you owe it to your employees to take another look at the signs you currently have in place. Are they clear? Are they necessary? Are they accurate? Do you need more, or do you need to remove or update current signs? These signs are there when you are not, and they act as a constant reminder for employees to the actual hazards specific to the work environment. Good signage and the direct influence these signs have on the safe work practices of your workforce will only benefit your bottom line.

Accident Investigation...
Don't forget to ask during accident investigations about the area signage. What did employees know and remember about the signs and what each means? You may be surprised and will learn how effective your sign campaign is. Read the codes affecting your specific workplace hazards and operations. Review your OSHA injury history. Talk with your employees. Be reasonable and consistent.

In the final analysis, safety signage is your perfect training and awareness opportunity! 24/7 reminders wait at each location, and appropriate signage make a difference that you will never know about, because the signs prevented an injury and saved your company a huge expense through worker’s compensation, medical treatment, and retraining efforts.

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Keith Bilger, BS, is a Safety Consultant I for the Central Prison Healthcare Complex with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at kbilger74@gmail.com.

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