ANSI Compliant Signs and Labels

Effective Safety Symbols

In ANSI, Safety Symbols on 9 March 2009 at 2:30 pm

Abstract Safety Symbol

What does this symbol mean?

If you don’t know, you’re not alone.

Many of the safety symbols in use today are simple abstract designs. For many symbols, this is a necessity. The symbols for both radiation and biological hazards, for example, were deliberately designed to be abstract, easily identifiable, and unique. Charles Baldwin, an environmental-health engineer who directed the program which developed the biohazard alert symbol, explained:

“The only parameters that I set down for [the team] to noodle through were 1) it had to be unique and 2) it had to be something that would be striking enough that it would be remembered. We wanted something that was memorable but meaningless, so we could educate people as to what it means.”

Once the final design was reached, Baldwin wrote a paper in the journal Science, presenting it to the scientific community. After getting authorization from various organizations, it was eventually adopted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This kind of long-term investment in a safety symbol is rare, however. Most of the abstract shapes that are being used on facility signs and labels (like the example above) can actually add confusion. Too often, these symbols are used automatically, without regard for a reader’s ability to comprehend the message. This can actually increase the danger that the sign is intended to warn against.

ANSI (the American National Standards Institute) is actively encouraging the use of representational symbols rather than abstract images. From their Criteria for Safety Symbols:

“While symbols are by definition somewhat abstract, those that are more representational will often be more easily understood. It is especially important to include specifics when the safety symbol is intended to warn users of a ‘hidden’ hazard.” – ANSI Z535.3-2007 A3.1

Rather than the hard-to-understand symbol which opened this article, this would be an effective alternative:

Fire Alarm Safety Symbol

It is much more clear that this symbol means “Fire Alarm.” Where the first image tried to indefinitely illustrate a bell or a button, this symbol shows a clear and specific action. The use of color adds another dimension of clarity:

Fire Alarm Safety Symbol

When designing the signs and labels for your facility, make sure to use symbols which clearly and completely communicate your message. One of the great benefits of creating your own signs and labels is the ability to control the message and communicate to your specific needs (which isn’t always possible when buying pre-printed stock). Be careful to choose symbols which can be easily understood by anyone who walks into your facility, no matter what language they speak or how much experience they have with the specific hazards they may encounter.

  1. […] Effective Safety Symbols A Good Sign? […]

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