Safety Signs Say More Than We May Think

Many private colleges and universities have taken the time to write-and it should be in writing-a safety plan that instructs staff and students in what to do in case of various emergency situations. These safety plans may also incorporate Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines on the safety precautions that must be taken during on-campus construction.

Furthermore, campus safety plans often include guidance regarding how often and what types of safety training are to be conducted on the campus, who is to attend, as well as what the requirements are for wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), such as protective clothing, eye gear, and gloves. If the plan addresses safety signs, it likely will say something like, “Warning signs (or markings) are to be placed around hazardous areas.” However, we have a problem with this wording. A “warning” and a “hazard,” at least when it comes to safety signs, are two different things. University administrators need to be aware of this and other distinctions when it comes to safety signs.

Where and Why to Install a Safety Sign

To help keep our discussion simple, we will refer to the various types of hazard signs as safety signs. These signs have many purposes, from safeguarding construction sites to alerting pedestrians to a wet floor.

If construction is taking place on campus, the contractor will be required to follow OSHA instructions for installing safety signs and cones-for instance, when a safety sign should be installed during the day-to-day operations of a facility by university administration.

Among the circumstances that require a safety sign are the following instances:

  • Whenever floors or carpets are being cleaned or have recently been cleaned (this would also include transition areas, where a carpet meets a hard surface floor)
  • Whenever there is a spill on a floor
  • Whenever the potential for an accident exists, for instance, when lightbulbs are being changed or work is being performed overhead
  • When outdoor walkways may be wet or slippery
  • When an area is closed; reasons for a closure range from cleaning activities to the presence of potentially harmful chemical fumes
  • When and where an obstruction is in a walkway . When designating an area that should not be entered, inside or outside the facility
  • Where grounds maintenance is being performed

Essentially, we can simplify this to OSHA specification, which states essentially that safety signs are to be installed whenever and wherever there are specific hazards that without proper identification could result in an accident or injury.

Safety Sign Colors and Wording

Now let’s take a closer look at the types of safety signs. OSHA specification also includes regulations as to what colors safety signs should be. For instance, a sign that indicates “danger” must be red with white or black lettering. A “warning” sign is in orange with black labeling. A “caution” sign must be yellow, with black or white letters. Finally, any safety instructions- typically guidelines or suggestions-must be green with white lettering. Also, the words should be easy to read and contain specific information that is easily understood. However, with the new global harmonizing system (GHS) in place, which now applies to safety signs, rules regarding wording are changing.

Pictograms on Safety Signs

In an effort to overcome language barriers, the GHS system is much more focused on pictograms that convey warning and safety information and not so much on words. The use of pictograms on safety signs is also required to comply with American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard Z535. While the GHS is putting greater emphasis on pictograms to convey a message, the words used on safety signs, such as “caution,” “warning,” and “danger,” are still important and refer to different potential hazards. There are, of course, specific instances when each type of sign should be used.

Here are some examples:

Hazard may be present: If a hazard that could lead to an accident or injury may be present but only cause moderate injury if not avoided, the appropriate sign to use would read “caution.” For instance, say lightbulbs are being changed in an interior walkway. Although it is unlikely anything would happen that could result in an accident, the chance is still present, which calls for the use of a caution sign.

Hazard possible but not probable: A more urgent message would indicate there is the possibility but not necessarily the probability of an injury or death. In such situations, a “warning” sign would be installed. A warning sign often is posted when there is a biohazard present, such as in a storage room.

Hazard highly probable: This is the most urgent of the three types of safety signs, and the word “danger” is used. It is doubtful a cleaning contractor would ever install such a sign if performing typical cleaning tasks. It should be used only in extreme situations in which people are likely to be harmed. As a side-note, it is not to be used if the hazard involves only property damage.

Two other safety signs are also common on university campuses. One sign simply says “notice.” This might be posted outside a facility, for instance, to tell building users that floor or carpet cleaning work will be performed inside. “Emergency” signs are used to indicate procedural instructions such as “emergency exit” or “emergency eye bath.”

Replacing Safety Signs

Although the new GHS labeling changes have specific dates by which they must be in place on such products as cleaning solutions, similar requirements do not apply to safety signs. In most cases, when signs need to be replaced due to damage or wear and tear, new signs that conform with GHS are to be selected.

When it does come time to select new safety signs, university administrators should ensure several criteria are met. First, signs should be designed to be highly visible; many green and yellow signs, for instance, are fluorescent, which enhances their visibility. Next, signs should be written in both English and Spanish (if used in North America). For the sake of longevity and convenience, they should be durable and stackable. Additionally, they should indicate the reason the sign is posted or the potential risk-for instance, “wet floor.” They should have UV protection so they can be used outside in the sun with less risk of fading. In addition to being 25 to 35 inches tall, they should be three-sided and visible from approximately 35 feet.

Because we see them so often, safety signs are often taken for granted. Yet when it comes to safety, we cannot overstate the importance of proper safety sign use. Very simply, these signs keep your students, visitors, and staff safe on campus.

About the Author
Vicky Adams is category manager for safety, gloves, and foodservice products for Impact Products, the dominant manufacturer of the supplies and accessories category of the cleaning and maintenance industry. She can be reached through her company website at