Will OSHA’s New Safety Signs Save More Lives?

By Blair Brewster Jul 30, 2013

In September 2013, the standards on safety signs are scheduled to change. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z535 sign design—the committee’s most recent and more detailed version—will be a sanctioned alternative to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) traditional, simpler template.

The ANSI designs are nuanced; they better reflect and address the complicated hazards of the modern workplace. The designs give employers another good option to consider as they safeguard their employees.

Still, the ANSI designs have a number of limitations and are not always the best option.

How ANSI Designs Are Used

To date, the ANSI safety sign designs represent a tiny portion of the current warning sign market. They are used primarily with custom-designed warning signs, especially those that are used in multiple locations. The cost to design and approve these more complex warning signs discourages single-sign application. These designs are often used by electrical utilities, the transportation industry and as warning labels on equipment.

Since these designs communicate more detail, and therefore provide better legal protection in the event of an accident, you don’t have to look far to find a lawyer behind these signs’ application. The fear of litigation and tort law drives many of the current uses of the ANSI sign designs.

Do the ANSI Standards Provide Superior Protection?

With an emphasis on tested symbols and the ability to handle complex messages, the ANSI designs have many advantages. Without doubt, the ANSI designs are better able to handle the increasingly complex hazards found in the typical workplace.

The emphasis on legibility, hazard avoidance and hazard consequences in the designs are all major advantages in an increasingly complex workplace.

No one would argue that traditional sign designs are often dangerously out-of-date. Changing little since the 1930s and 40s, the traditional safety sign designs don’t reflect many aspects of our 21st century environment, such as:

A multilingual workforce. Americans are increasingly culturally diverse and English is not always a first language.

High job turnover. The vast majority of accidents occur in the first weeks at work, and Americans now average seven jobs in their career.

Illiteracy. More than 40 million Americans cannot read this paragraph. It is the illiterate workers who are most likely to work in environments with a greater risk of injury or illness.

The vulnerability of the public. More and more signs are viewed outside of the controlled environment of the factory floor. Safety signs are not just for factory workers, but for children, lab technicians, recent immigrants, service workers, or anyone who comes across buried utility lines. In fact, the fastest growing category of injury happens offsite; over $100 billion is spent annually on injuries that occurred away from workplaces.

More hazards with hidden or delayed impact. Electrocution, asphyxiation and toxic gas are all hidden hazards; cancer, infertility, bloodborne pathogens and birth defects all have a delayed impact. Communicating these consequences on a sign can be difficult.

Increased mechanical complexity. The inside of today’s factory is much more complex than the factory of 50 years ago. Mechanical processes have given way to remote, electronic controls. The crash of a computer system can interrupt emergency responsiveness. Substation switches are radio controlled at a remote site. Simple stock signs and tags cannot convey this inevitable complexity.

The competition for attention. Safety signs are likely to be part of numerous other procedures: emergency response procedures, safety training systems, way-finding systems, hazardous communication procedures, fire protection drills, etc. As such, warning signs are part of a complex system of postings that should not be unplanned or managed independently. They must fit into an overall communication scheme of a plant.

The Downside of Incorporating ANSI Designs Within the OSHA Rules

For all their updated advantages, the Z535 designs, in many situations, are not better. There will be unintended consequences of pushing the ANSI designs for many hazards. The Z535 designs require, in most situations, more information. By putting more information on the sign, there may be a subtle downgrading of training. Why train when the proper handling instructions are given on the sign itself?

Additionally, information can go stale. A sign that says “call x808 In Case of an Emergency” or “Wear Latex Gloves,” while better in the short term, can quickly become a hazard itself. Safety officers change. New research can emerge on proper PPE to wear. In contrast, a “Danger Keep Out” sign is evergreen.

Most safety signs can last a generation once installed. Ultimately, many environments will have a mishmash of both traditional and Z535 designs. Remember that each department may install their own signs (Operations, Fire Protection, Safety, etc.) and only one or two signs are ordered at a time.

Part of the ANSI design’s limitation is that it was created by committee. Driven by stakeholders in the warning industry (think label designers for equipment, symbol researchers, consultants that feed off tort litigation), the ANSI standards sometimes support the needs of the label market over the practical needs of safety signs. Trying to harmonize safety label designs with safety sign needs has caused many problems.

Does the ANSI Create Problems?

Warning signs and warning labels function differently. An implicit goal of warning labels is to defend the manufacturer in case of an accident (e.g., protecting the ladder manufacturer from liability). Warn—but don’t scare away—customers. For safety signs, the goal is reversed. We want to scare you into safe behavior.

For warning signs, there is a danger of too many exaggerated claims of hazards, essentially losing credibility by crying wolf. For safety labels, the bias is toward complexity; for safety signs, the bias is toward a blunt and exaggerated headline. The goals for each constituency are contradictory; one seeks to diminish the perception of danger and the other wants to amplify it.

Unfortunately, the ANSI standard, while meeting many of the goals for safety labels, has some fundamental flaws when applied to safety sign designs. The failure of the ANSI Z535 safety sign standard in the marketplace has more to do with the failure of the ANSI designs themselves than with a lack of a particular OSHA reference or the nuisance of de minimis violations.

In some environments, the traditional designs will remain most common. In others, the ANSI designs offer a greater level of clarity that safety officers appreciate.

In the Z535 designs, hazard and probability distinctions are lost on all but the most sophisticated users. The designer—and more importantly the passerby potentially affected by a hazard—must make a series of very complicated probability and risk-assessment choices. Fine distinctions must be quickly made between different types of injuries and the probability of an accident. Lawyers love it, but I’m worried about the naïve layman. You shouldn’t have to be a lawyer or a graphic designer to create a new safety sign, let alone read one. There is no time to decipher a severity and probability flow chart when face-to-face with a hazard. Moreover, there are a number of other OSHA standards that may be in conflict.

Increased costs and time-to-order are also limitations for ANSI Z535 signs and tags. Certainly, digital printing, online ordering and on-demand printing have eliminated many of the additional costs for a typical (and often customized) ANSI sign or tag when compared to a traditional stock safety sign or tag. The real burden is in the design. Choosing a symbol, consistently making fine distinctions for the sign’s header, and writing a complex hazard avoidance and consequence message appropriate to your environment takes time and a sophistication that a typical small business buyer of one or two signs might not be able to supply.

What Changes Are In Store?

Ultimately, the impact will be minimal. In practice, the ANSI Z535 design standards are widely ignored by most sectors of the warning sign industry. Over 90 percent of the warning signs sold in the United States follow the original 1968 standards. The warning sign and tag market totals over $250 million annually, and the percentage following the ANSI Z535 design guidelines has changed little over the last 15-plus years. This is frustrating for those of us who worked over the years on crafting and revising the ANSI sign and tag standards.

In many ways, I applaud the changes of the ANSI Z535 standard. After all, I helped draft many of the changes that were incorporated in the safety sign as well as the safety tag standards. The standards are an honest and well-intended attempt to handle the trends in our industry. But, safety signs are not like U.S. traffic signs or the Globally Harmonized System symbols used in international chemical hazard labeling. Warning signs and tags are emotionally and graphically complicated.

Safety signs, most of all, are advertisements for safe behavior. Like any good advertising campaign, it is hard to construct a single design standard that is good for all safety signs. Someone’s life is on the line. A community’s security is at stake. The workplace is cluttered with multiple messages. Safety sign designers need a wide range of motivational tools, slogans and designs to prevent accidents depending upon the audience, their training and the urgency of the hazard. Tools include sign repetition, accident photos or even humor.

Moreover, the notion that safety signs are a distinct category for safety messages is unsound. How is a safety message different when shown on safety signs versus when shown on a banner, a safety scoreboard, a floor sign, barricade tape, an audio warning, user instructions or on an iPad?

It would be arrogant to assume that a single standard is best. The ANSI Z535 designs, the traditional safety sign and tag designs, as well as the countless other designs to come, will all have their place and will all coexist.

This is not only inevitable but good for safety.

Blair Brewster is president of www.MySafetySign.com a past member of the ANSI Z535 committee, past chairman of ANSI Z535.5 and, over the last 30 years, has founded companies that manufacture, distribute and design safety signs and tags.

Republished with permission. © 2013 MySafetySign. All rights reserved.

Related Article:

OSHA Committee Approves Updated Warning Signs, SHRM Online Safety & Security, March 2013

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