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Choosing the Right OSHA Safety Signs

Posted on 9/6/2016 by Kim Folger, Instructor

Most safety professionals are familiar with OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) at 29 CFR 1910.1200 for container labels and Safety Data Sheets. But the HCS doesn’t cover everything. Across a typical facility, signs of all shapes, sizes, and colors communicate different hazards to workers. Did you know that many of these safety signs and tags also must meet specific OSHA requirements for communicating biological, mechanical, and other physical hazards?

How Employers Choose the Right OSHA Safety Signs and Tags

Before determining what types of safety signs may be needed, employers must evaluate the workplace for hazardous, and potentially hazardous, conditions. Then, they must use signs and/or tags to identify hazardous conditions, equipment, or operations. These communications are designed to prevent accidents or at least alert employees to the presence of hazards.   

Several provisions of the OSHA General Industry Standards (29 CFR 1910.144–1910.145) specify the design, shape, color, text, symbols, use, and application of accident prevention signs and tags for specific hazards. OSHA specifies what information must appear on each type of sign, where each type of sign must be used, and how to format each sign type.

Safety Color Codes for Marking Physical Hazards [29 CFR 1910.144]

Specific colors are used to attract attention to where more information is contained, which should help people make safer decisions.

Color Signal Word Used for?
RED "Danger" Fire protection equipment and apparatus; flammable liquid/gas safety cans; stop buttons, bars, and switches
ORANGE "Warning" Slow moving vehicle signs, biological hazard tags
YELLOW "Caution" Physical hazards e.g., striking against, stumbling, falling, tripping, and "caught in between"


Specifications for Accident Prevention Signs and Tags [29 CFR 1910.145]

This section and its appendixes apply to the design, application, and use of signs or symbols that indicate and define specific hazards that could harm workers and/or the public or hazards that could cause property damage. These requirements are to be used for all safety signs except for safety posters and bulletin boards and signs that are designed for railroads, highways, and streets.

Tags and signs may be preprinted and generic, such as “Caution - Do Not Enter” signs on doors leading to restricted areas or “Danger - Do Not Use” tags on out-of-service pieces of equipment. However, when unique hazards are identified, unique tags or signs must be made. In these cases, follow the criteria found below.

Signal Words for Hazard Alert Safety Messages

OSHA Danger sign red The DANGER sign indicates the most severe and immediate hazard situations, which, if not avoided, will result in serious injury or death. Use should be limited to the most extreme situations.

OSHA warning sign orangeThe WARNING sign indicates a hazardous situation between "caution" and "danger," which, if not avoided, could result in serious injury or death.

OSHA Caution sign yellowThe CAUTION sign indicates situations where a non-immediate or potential hazard or unsafe practice could, if not avoided, result in minor or moderate injury.

Non-hazard Safety Alert Messages

OSHA Notice sign blue The NOTICE sign indicates important information that is not considered hazard related, like security information or information about hygiene, equipment, or property damage.

OSHA Safety instructions sign greenThe SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS sign communicates general safety directions, procedures, or information. Alternate words can be used in the signal word panel, like "Boiler Shutdown Procedure"                                                                                                  or "Lockout/Tagout Procedure."

OSHA Safety Symbols

Symbols and pictographs may be used as they are more easily understood than written text and can be used to communicate across language barriers. The specified shapes, colors, and designs draw attention to the safety message, meet Federal and global compliance requirements, and may enhance workplace safety.

OSHA Safety symbol Yellow Exclamation OSHA biohazard symbol
This safety alert symbol indicates that a potential personal injury hazard exists. It is only used on DANGER, WARNING, and CAUTION signs, labels, and tags.
The biohazard symbol indicates the actual or potential presence of a biological hazard/ infectious agent presenting a risk or potential risk to people.

Wording of OSHA Hazard Signs

Employers use clear, simple language to communicate hazards in a concise manner. Signs and tags should include an appropriate signal word (Danger, Warning, or Caution) and a "major message." The major message should include:

  • The nature of the hazard
  • How to avoid the hazard, and/or
  • The consequence(s) of not avoiding the hazard.

Danger keep hands clear of equipment sign

ANSI Z535 Design Criteria for Safety Signs

When OSHA adopted the 2011 ANSI Z535 design criteria for safety signage in 2013, it provided employers with additional options for meeting the requirements. To avoid imposing additional costs on facility owners, the new ANSI references still appear next to the old standards in the regulations. Current signs and tags may still be used to fulfill OSHA compliance obligations. However, any new or replacement signs and tags must meet the new specifications in the regulations.Make sure your new accident prevention signs and tags are up to snuff by following the standards found in 29 CFR 1910.145!

OSHA Safety Training at Lion.com

Protecting workers is the number one priority of safety professionals everywhere. A major part of keeping employees safe is providing effective training that drives home the importance of the OSHA safety rules and helps workers identify the hazards they face. Online OSHA training at Lion.com is designed to inform and engage workers to make sure they have the critical information they need to protect themselves and their co-workers from injuries and illness.

Now that OSHA fines have gone up nearly 80%, an effective safety program—and employees who know their individual safety responsibilities—are more valuable than ever. 

Browse OSHA Online Courses here.

Tags: communication, hazard, osha, workplace safety

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