No matter the industry, hazards are rampant in workplaces throughout the United States. Manufacturing equipment, conveyors, forklifts, slippery surfaces, and ladders are just some of the many hazards workers face on the job.
Given these risks, OSHA has developed guidelines for signs and tags that identify workplace hazards (29 CFR 1910.145). The important standard explains design requirements and informs employers when safety signs, labels, and tags must be used.
When the regulation was created, it aligned with the ANSI Z35 industry standard for safety signage. Today, OSHA's rules allow employers to use the designs that were originally described in this regulation, or the updated designs described in the most recent edition of the ANSI standard (now titled ANSI Z535). In addition to what's found in 29 CFR 1910.145, the ANSI Z535 standard offers additional information on safety colors, alert symbols, and pictograms.
Here's a look at how to keep workers safe, establish consistency throughout a facility, and follow OSHA's standard for safety signs (designed to be permanent fixtures in a facility) and tags (temporary warnings about immediate hazards).
"Danger" signs communicate the most serious workplace hazards; they communicate that an employee may die or sustain serious injuries if the hazard is not avoided.
OSHA offers the following basic guidelines concerning "Danger" signs:
Where multiple signs in a facility warn about the same (or similar) hazards, all those signs should use the same (or similar) designs
Signs must communicate immediate danger and all necessary precautions
"Caution" signs warn workers when they may experience minor or moderate injuries if they don't avoid the specific hazard.
Here's what OSHA has to say about "Caution" signs:
Signs should warn against potential hazards or unsafe work practices
"Caution" signs indicate that workers should take proper precautions to avoid a hazard (PPE advisories, for example)
Safety Instruction Signs
Safety instruction signs usually convey general messages, most commonly concerning health, first aid, medical equipment, housekeeping, sanitation, and general safety measures.
OSHA's standard maintains that safety signs should offer general instructions and suggestions for safety measures. For instance, these signs may point out emergency eye wash fountains and first aid kits.
Employers should use biological hazard signs to communicate the presence (or potential presence) of a biohazard. These signs should identify equipment, rooms, and other items that contain (or are contaminated with) biological hazards.
The standard says little else about biohazard sign design, but employers should take the following into account:
The biohazard symbol should be present and can be black or orange
A background color is optional; if present, it must offer enough contrast to make the sign clearly visible
"Danger" and "Warning" signs can also call attention to biohazards
General Sign Design Elements
29 CFR 1910.145 outlines general design elements. Here are a few rules to consider when selecting safety signs:
Signs must have rounded or blunt corners
Signs may not have sharp edges, burrs, splinters, or sharp projections
Fastening bolts and devices must be positioned so they don't constitute a hazard
Words must be easy to read, accurate, clear, and concise
Signs must contain enough information to be easily and quickly understood
Signs should offer positive, rather than negative, suggestions
Guidelines for Accident Prevention Tags
Employers may occasionally use tags, in lieu of signs, for addressing temporary, unexpected, or unapparent hazards (such as when performing lockout/tagout procedures on a piece of equipment). Accident prevention tags are usually used temporarily-only until the hazard in question has been eliminated, or until the hazardous operation has wrapped up.
Here are a few guidelines for using accident prevention tags, as laid out in 29 CFR 1910.145(f):
Tags should contain a signal word (such as "Danger," "Caution" or "Biological Hazard"), which should be readable from at least five feet away (or longer, if warranted by the hazard)
The tag's primary message should communicate the specific hazard or provide instruction for remaining safe
Tags may use symbols, text, or a combination of the two
All visual communication must be understandable to all employees exposed to the hazard
Tags should be affixed as close as safely possible to the hazard through wire, string, or adhesive
Resources for Accident Prevention Signs and Tags
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