Grab Bag: Safety Signs and Labels

There are many topics in the safety sphere which transcend any individual business or industry, and become vital in just about every industrial operation (and sometimes non-industrial as well) in existence. The wide range of safety signs, labels, and the associated rules and suggestions that go along with them certainly fit into this category without question. While businesses and their purposes range greatly, safety signs are universal, and keep your workers out of harm’s way. In this article, we’re going to go over a number of the sign types in existence, what purposes they serve, and what’s required of you as an employer when using them.

Interestingly enough, OSHA has a fairly narrow definition of what comprises a safety sign:

As used in this section, the word “sign” refers to a surface on prepared for the warning of, or safety instructions of, industrial workers or members of the public who may be exposed to hazards. Excluded from this definition, however, are news releases, displays commonly known as safety posters, and bulletins used for employee education.

-OSHA Safety Signs Definition

We can take from this that while signs themselves have specifically assigned requirements and uses, you can take more creative license with other materials (your own posters, etc.).

Type of Workplace Signs

Danger Signs: OSHA states that danger signs should be used when there is an immediate threat to employ safety and/or severe radiation hazards. Workers should be trained to know that these signs indicate a need for extreme or special precautions in order to remain safe. These signs should have a primarily red and black color pallet, with a lower white section used for lettering and messaging. As a rule of thumb, danger signs should be used when employee behavior could put them at more risk, but when a situation could also be dangerous without negligence on the part of the worker.

Caution signs: Caution signs should be yellow and black, and are used to denote potential risks and practices on the part of the employee that could create hazards. Examples include instructing employees to not climb or go too close to a certain structure, to walk carefully in an area where there has been a spill, or to not alter controls or settings on an electrical panel. In most cases warranting a caution sign, normal occupancy of an area does not constitute a danger unless exacerbated by employee behaviors.

Safety Instruction Signs: For situations in which instructions for preventative measures are to be given, but where an immediate risk to the employee does not exist, safety instruction signs may be used. These should feature a white border with green paneling and white letters. These signs are useful for longer-form instruction and can also be used to supplement caution and danger signs with additional instructions.

Exit Signs: Exit signs are so ubiquitous that we might forget to categorize them as a true “safety sign” or include them in our signage plans. Exit signs are one of the most important sign types for any business. They help to guide employees in emergencies, especially when visibility may be low – such as in a fire, earthquake, or other catastrophic event. Additionally, exit signs protect customers, inspectors, and other individuals who may not be familiar with the layout of your building, warehouse, or office. Exit sign requirements are many and in-depth, but in general an exit sign must be visible from all main hubs of a room, and the lettering stroke needs to be at least ¾ of an inch thick to ensure visibility and recognition from a distance.


Labels, unlike signs, are associated with very specific items and are generally attached to them directly. Here are a few types:

Container Labels: Container labels can be used to denote what substances and materials are held within. This is required and vitally important when shipping materials and components between businesses, especially when dealing with potentially dangerous chemicals. OSHA requires certain procedures be followed when labeling such containers, including a detailed 7 to 8 section packet.

pipe-markingPipe and Wiring: These labels can denote pipes that are under extreme pressure or are carrying very hot or very cold substances. Additionally, they can indicate that a dangerous substance is flowing; in any event, these help workers know to be careful around them. Wiring and other high-voltage entities can be labeled as well to help them stand out to employees.

Others: Labels can be placed on just about anything you feel necessary. For machines, you might label potential pinch-points where employee clothing or body parts could get caught.

Other Varieties of Signs

In addition to the standard OSHA-required signage, you might want to make use of free-standing floor signs, or vinyls that place a sign directly on the floor. These signs can be highly effective when used in conjunction with other caution signs to indicate areas where special PPE is required, where additional caution should be taken, or where vehicles or equipment (collision risks) are going to be coming through.

Using Signs Effectively

The most important part of using any sort of signage system, including OSHA’s, is that your employees know what the signs themselves mean. Most of the signs are based off of visual cues we’ve had since childhood (red being associated with fire, alarm, emergency, etc.), but this is not always going to be universal, so it’s important that all employees are briefed on what exactly the different types of signs indicate. This becomes all the more important when training employees from different cultural backgrounds and languages. Visual identification of signage without needing to read the full message can help workers who have English as a second language. For this reason, newer ANSI standards have included information about using symbols and simple illustrations featured more prominently on signs in order to give them better at-a-glance risk identification capabilities.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to developing an effective safety sign and label system for your business. Finally, remember to incorporate regular upkeep and to use materials that last; labels that have been scraped away or signs that become dented or obscured aren’t of much help to anyone!

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