The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) remain today's leading authorities on all things safety signage, sign symbols and their meanings.
These agencies — alongside a few others — maintain a library of mandatory workplace signs and sign regulations, all with one goal — to alert employees when nearing a hazardous or dangerous work environment and instill an overall accident-preventative environment.
OSHA and ANSI identify three classifications of mandatory signs in the workplace:
- Danger signs
- Caution signs
- General safety information signs
We're reviewing each of these three primary sign categories, along with their regulatory symbols and designs that designate these fixtures as clear accident prevention tags. We include an additional six categories of safety signs as well, each signaling their own safety and health information vital across working environments and contributing to a transparent and upstanding workplace, regardless of what industry you're in.
Why Safety Signs Are Necessary
Employee safety isn't a choice. Outfitting workplaces with regulatory safety signs is therefore not just a best practice or the right thing to do — it's the only thing to do.
OSHA and ANSI each contain a series of guidelines instructing the usage environments, designs and applications for safety signs and tags:
- OSHA 29 CFR 1910.145: Outlines environmental safety controls, namely the types of signs mandatory in today's workplaces plus compliant application and installation.
- ANSI Z535: Expands sign safety controls to outline exact sign design elements, including standardized alert symbols (pictograms), colors, signal words and lettering size and style.
Review the following core tenets of mandatory safety signs, then continue on to discover today's range of signage cultivating accident prevention techniques and safer workplaces.
1. Avoid OSHA Violations
Regardless of what industry you're in, those found incompliant of OSHA 1910.145 and ANSI Z535 can face regulatory as well as legal repercussions.
- Notices: OSHA inspectors will first serve notices to employers found to be officially incompliant with mandatory signage and environmental control regulations.
- Fines: Serious OSHA violations face fines starting at $13,260 per violation or per day a cited violation continues. Those found willfully or repeatedly violating OSHA mandates can be fined $132,598 per violation.
- Lost licenses: Organizations found repeatedly and willfully violating OSHA, ANSI and other regulatory agents' mandates can have their operating licenses revoked and their businesses shut down.
- Criminal liability: Criminal prosecution is the fourth and most extreme OSHA penalty. This occurs when employers are considered to have willfully neglected safety standards — including danger signs — with that negligence found to have resulted in a worker's death.
2. Properly Labelled Working Environments
OSHA violations are based on failure to meet 1910.145's "General Duty Clause," which states workplaces must be furnished with clear signage designating hazards that will are likely to cause serious injury and/or death. Failure to properly label such hazardous or above-average danger zones is the leading cause behind OSHA inspection violations that result in official notices and fines.
3. Prevent Accidents
Safety signage reduces the likelihood of injuries and on-premise accidents. According to OSHA's most recent data, improper hazard communications standards are the second most-cited workplace violation and third most prevalent reason for workplace injuries and deaths.
Employees are more alert to workplace hazards and can respond promptly and appropriately when incidents do occur, reducing on-premise injuries like slips, falls, struck-by-objects, electrocution and machine guarding.
4. Convey Integrity
The safety of your workforce is paramount. Safety signs, symbols and their meanings exist purely to protect employees and support the safe, secure jobs we all deserve. By staying up-to-date and in full compliance with OSHA and ANSI signage standards, your business communicates its value for the very people who make it tick.
Safety Signs, Symbols and Their Meanings
All safety signs are categorized according to the type of messages they display. Below are ten such mandatory safety sign types, including their common symbols, formats and design features.
1. Prohibition Signs
Common Symbols: Red slashed circle, central pictograms
Prohibitory signs relay an action, item or behavior that is not permitted within the sign's vicinity.
These signs are immediately recognizable by their surround shape, a central circular red emblem with a diagonal crossbar descending across at a 45-degree angle from the top-left of the circle to its bottom-right. This red crossbar slashes across a pictogram image underneath which displays the prohibited activity or object. Prohibition signs are also standardized by their white panel background and black or red pictograms and command text.
Common examples of prohibition signs include:
- "No smoking"
- "No food or drink"
- "No photography"
- "No naked flames"
- "Do not open"
2. Danger Signs
Common Symbols: "Danger" command text, exclamation marks (safety alert signal)
Danger signs are to be installed in areas where immediate hazards and risk are present. If these hazards aren't heeded, anyone in the area is at risk for serious injury and even death.
Danger signs are the most extreme category of OSHA's three general sign types and should, therefore, be displayed only where such precautions are paramount. They contain their own relevant surround shapes, most notably the command word "Danger" printed within a red rectangle or oval on the top-half of the sign or tag. That red rectangle or oval sits against a black rectangle on the sign's larger white background panel, and together they create a high-contrast, high-visibility design.
Examples of danger signs in workplaces include:
- "High voltage"
- "Dangerous chemicals"
- "Radiation risk"
- "Electric shock risk"
3. Warning Signs
Common Symbols: Exclamation marks (safety alert symbol), 45 degree-rotated square border, inverted triangle border
Warning signs signal workplace hazard levels that require extra awareness and could result in a serious injury or death but do not pose an immediate threat to the degree of a danger zone.
Warning signs also contain their own distinct surround shapes — an equilateral rotated square, with lines sloping at a diagonal 45-degrees as opposed to straight, 90-degree sides on a horizontal base. Warning signs can additionally contain a black exclamation mark station inside a triangle pictogram, printed to the right of the "Warning" signal word.
Warning signs also come in yellow, with additional black-lined pictograms indicating the behavior, object or activity requiring precautions.
4. Caution Signs
Common Symbols: Exclamation marks (safety alert symbol), inverted triangle border
Caution signs are the second OSHA-official sign category and the least severe of its danger-level indicators. In other words, this regulatory sign type is an accident prevention tag, one indicating situations that may result in minor to moderate injuries if proper attention isn't maintained.
Two main signals denote caution signs. First, caution signs should contain the command word "Caution" in all-caps, all-black text on the top-most half of a sign or tag. Second, caution signage is typically printed on a yellow panel background in an inverted triangle panel shape, or contain an inverted triangle surround shape with a black exclamation mark next to the "Caution" command word.
There are many examples of caution signs in the workplace, including:
- "Wet floor"
- "Trip hazard"
- "Low headroom"
- "Forklift trucks operating"
5. Fire Signs
Common Symbols: Fire emblem, fire extinguisher
There are two types of compliant fire signage:
- Prohibitory fire signs: A specific type of prohibition sign denoting no open flames — including smoking and vaping — allowed.
- Emergency fire fighting equipment: As the name suggests, these signs designate where fire-fighting equipment is stored, such as fire extinguishers, fire blankets, smoke masks and hoses.
Unlike many other safety signs, fire signage does not require a headline such as "Caution" or "Warning." All fire sign text and imagery is printed in white against a red panel background. These signs are typically located near fire alarms, though they aren't required to be.
6. General Safety/Emergency Information Signs
Common Symbols: Green command text OR green panel background
General safety and emergency information signage is the third official category of OSHA-mandated workplace prevention tags. They serve as reminders for workplace safety rules and best practices as well as direct employees to emergency equipment if needed.
General safety signs can be printed using one of two formats — text and pictograms printed in green or black on a plain white background or text and pictograms printed in white on a green background. To maintain clarity, general safety or emergency information signs should never contain the safety alert symbol — the exclamation mark within a yellow triangle.
This type of safety sign is broad and multifunctional. Workplaces should install general safety signage when any of the following are present:
- First aid kits
- Sanitation stations for hands, eye-washing and more
- Emergency phones
- Safety shutdown procedure manual
- Safety apparel required
7. Wayfinding Signage
Common Symbols: Arrows, room numbers, Braille or similar tactile text
Wayfinding signage is an important functional inclusion in buildings, offices and commercial spaces across all industries.
At their most basic, wayfinding signage is mandatory to designate both regular and emergency egress routes. These directional materials play an essential role in helping employees, customers and workplace visitors alike identify the safest routes from point A to point B in the event of an emergency. Wayfinding signage is also found in manufacturing, warehousing and similar industrial applications to denote proper equipment traffic routes, such as lanes for forklift and automated guided vehicles.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) governs compliant wayfinding signage. They offer guidelines on compliant sign mounting heights, locations, visibility and more.
8. Notice Signs
Common Symbols: Blue command text OR blue panel background
Notice signs are used to draw attention to critical information regarding behaviors, expectations and activities in a designated area.
While similar in purpose to general safety and emergency information signs, notice signs have one primary difference — a header word. All notice signs will contain the headline "Notice" in white text against a blue rectangle backdrop printed in the top-most half of the sign. This header serves as the command word and the key visual symbol distinguishing notice signs from the rest.
Use notice signs in any of the following pertinent areas:
- Handwashing stations
- Waste disposal and recycling bins
- Food storage areas
- Room or facility housekeeping rules
9. Construction Signs
Common Symbols: Orange background, centered worker pictograms
Construction signage constitutes its own category of safety and accident-prevention tags.
One out of every five workplace injuries (20%) occurs on a construction site. This classifies construction as the most accident-prone sector of the private industry. Furthermore, only four accident types make up over half of all construction incidents that lead to injuries and fatalities:
- Caught in between
Construction safety signage directly addresses these "fatal four" in the construction industry. Safety signs should be stationed clearly and unobstructed both within and around construction work zones, notifying workers of relevant hazards and reminding them of proper safety procedures to reduce on-premise accidents. Examples of such construction safety signage include:
- General site safety notices
- "Danger: High voltage"
- "Danger: Open hole"
- "Falling rocks/debris"
- "Hard hat area"
- And many other custom signs for construction sites
OSHA Safety Color Codes
We've seen how safety signs are regulated according to design, placement and pictogram. They're also color-coordinated, with sign categories assigned mandatory background and text colors to be considered in compliance.
Color coding safety signs make it easy for viewers to instinctually recognize, then register, the message on display. These consistent color schemes are mandated by OSHA and ANSI and adhere to the following pairings:
1. Red Signs: Fire Safety, Danger
ANSI standard Z535 designates red signage to convey immediate danger, as well as for signs illustrating fire or fire-related information. Red signs are to be used wherever imminent danger is present, including life-threatening work environments with the potential for serious injury and death.
2. Magenta on Yellow: Radiation
Magenta text on a yellow background creates a high-visibility accident prevention tag used in the proximity of radiation or radioactive substances. Examples of radiation sign deployments include for X-ray machinery, gamma and beta rays, and proton or neuron-related equipment or areas.
3. Yellow Signs: Warning/Caution Tags
Non-life-threatening warning and caution signs must be printed on yellow backgrounds, with solid, all-caps black lettering used for text against the yellow. Yellow signage signals an appropriate level of caution is to be used in a vicinity containing moderate risks for accidents and injury.
4. Green Signs: Emergency Information
Green text with white backgrounds or green backgrounds with white text both convey information relevant to emergency responses. More specifically, green safety signs indicate health and medical areas like eyewash stations, first aid equipment and sanitary supplies.
5. Orange Signs: Construction
Orange signs are consistently used in warning areas of construction sites. Construction and hard-hat area signage convey the potential danger of these work sites with medium-grade hazard levels, as well as remind those passing by to remain alert.
6. White Signs: General Information
OSHA designates white safety signage for general health, safety and directional information, such as restrooms, room labels, phone booths, parking, wayfinding signage and more.
Safe Projects Are Successful Projects. Successful Projects Start Here.
Have questions about safety sign regulations for your workplace? We've got answers.
Reach out to one of our compliance reps to inquire on the exact signage regulations and expectations in your industry. Duncan-Parnell has been supplying engineers, architects, site surveyors, plant supervisors and more with compliant large-format safety signage for over 70 years. We know safety isn't a choice — but neither is project efficiency and outputs.
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