ANSI Compliant Signs and Labels

What’s wrong with OSHA signs?

In ANSI, OSHA, Signs and Labels on 1 May 2009 at 8:35 am

OSHA "Confined Space" sign

This is a standard OSHA sign for a confined space. You can buy a sign exactly like this from any sign manufacturer, large or small. You could probably find something similar at your local Home Depot (sure enough, I found this with a simple search). So what’s wrong with it?

The short answer is, well, nothing. IF (and it’s a pretty big if) you are only worried about avoiding an OSHA fine this year. If, instead, you’re worried about keeping people safe (which is all of you), then there are three major problems with this sign.

First, this sign uses the old style header. It’s been a few years now since ANSI moved toward the international standards. The red oval in a black field is now generally referred to (unsurprisingly) as the “OSHA style” header. OSHA hasn’t yet outlawed this old version, but it will eventually, and sooner than you might think.

However, OSHA does specify that there is to be no variation in the type of sign posted to warn of specific dangers, warnings, and radiation hazards. This means that if you have both the new and the old style headers, OSHA will ding you.

Most importantly, of course, is making sure that people can tell, at a glace, that the situation is dangerous. The more closely you adhere to international standards, the more likely people will instantly comprehend your message.

Second, along those same lines, all-caps text is harder to read than sentence-case text. Don’t believe me? TRY READING THE REST OF MY ARTICLE LIKE THIS. TOO OFTEN, WE MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING THAT BIGGER MEANS EASIER TO READ, BUT THIS IS WRONG. FOR YEARS, OSHA STYLE SIGNS HAVE BEEN PRINTED IN ALL CAPS FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN BECAUSE THEY’VE ALWAYS BEEN PRINTED IN ALL CAPS. BUT STUDIES HAVE PROVED AGAIN AND AGAIN THAT the human mind is hardwired to read mixed-case words. See how much easier this is on your brain?

This is something that OSHA is already starting to take very seriously. Next time you’re driving down the highway, make note of the road signs and how they are written (especially the large green ones). You may not have even registered the gradual change over the years, but even our most prominent public signage is moving toward mixed-case lettering.

Third, what if someone can’t read English? Our OSHA-style sign is meaningless for international visitors, children, and foreign workers.

Safety symbols have become a crucial part of any safety sign. In fact, the international standards set forth by ISO puts more emphasis on the symbol than on the actual wording. ANSI has become very specific in their criteria for safety symbols. The goal is to make sure than anyone from anywhere can instantly recognize a hazard and take steps to avoid it.

With all of this in mind, here is a much better version of our sign using ANSI standards.

ANSI style Confined Space sign

This sign has the correct header, is easy to read, and includes an instantly recognizable safety symbol. There are many resources available to help you create more effective signs (like this “Best Practices” guide, for example). Most importantly, don’t be satisfied by your standard, store-bought OSHA signs. More than avoiding a fine, you’ll be keeping people safe.


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