Many of our lifelong associations between shapes, colors, and symbols are formed in our early years of life and follow us for decades. This “universal language” helps us to visually communicate with one another, even when coming from different backgrounds and cultures. In the workplace, these types of associations most often manifest themselves in the form of colors used on safety and informational signs. In this article, we’re going to go over color associations as they pertain to signs used in the workplace, and then look at some more specific uses for each in your own business.
ANSI and OSHA
The American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, sets forth standards spanning numerous industries and purposes, one of which being workplace safety. Hand in hand with OSHA, ANSI has published a list of which colors are to be associated with various threat and hazard levels to help encourage uniformity in industrial workplaces; having a general idea as to what a sign is warning about at just a glance can be helpful for workers forced into making quick decisions or who might be moving between jobs, and therefore might have some anticipations about learning new safety protocols and procedures.
It is worth knowing that OSHA is actually fairly limited in what they require when it comes to labeling, though most ANSI recommendations are still accepted as best practice industry standards. Here is some helpful information in regard to ANSI’s color standards.
ANSI Z535.1 sets forth the technical definitions, color standards, and color tolerances for the ANSI Z535 uniform safety color.
National Electrical Manufactures Association - American National Standard for Safety Colors
Let’s take a look at these pertinent color associations as stated by ANSI:
In your own workplace, look for places in which workers’ lives might be in immediate danger: machines which can catch on worker garments or limbs, or which have access points where an employee might fall in, these should always be denoted with red signs and labels to ensure that employees see them long before entering a dangerous situation. It is important to note that any situation in which lives might also be saved by means of someone pulling an emergency alarm, or through the use of a first aid kit, should also be marked with red (again, this standard is the reason that fire hose lockers, fire alarms, first aid kits, etc. are all usually red).
Yellow: Yellow signs are cautionary, and are used when minor injury or danger is present. This could be a minor machine pinch point, a place in which the floor is wet or slippery (like this safety sign), or where personal protection equipment is recommended, but not necessarily required because risk of injury is low. Yellow signage is common not only because the risks associated with them are as well, but also because the signs get attention easily. Tip: Don’t overuse red signage or categorize every minor hazard as a stern “danger,” or else the signs may lose their meaning or intended effect. Likewise, don’t give yellow signs’ visual pulling power too much credit, as they may be glossed over by workers or not given full attention since they are so common.
Orange: If red signs represent “danger” and their yellow counterparts say “caution,” then orange signs can be taken as a “warning” somewhere in the middle. Moderate or mid range risks and injury hazards should be given orange signage. Orange signs can also be used to denote mechanical guards, processes, or machinery that potentially poses a moderate threat to worker health and safety.
Blue: Blue signage is purely informational and generally should not be used if there is any immediate threat to workers. Blue signage may also change regularly with general tips and information. Examples of blue level signage or uses might be informational signs that tell workers where to place waste, where to put inventory, or general health and safety reminders
Green: Green signs indicate safety equipment and information. Unlike blue signs, these may be directly related to safety, but they also won’t pertain to any immediate danger. OSHA stipulates green and white signage with contrasting lettering be used for these purposes. Green level signs might let workers know where they can find personal protection equipment, inform them of procedures for handling a certain safety emergency (think “in case of…” type signs), and more.
While these colors cover the vast majority of safety signage situations you’ll run across, there are other visual queues and considerations. These could be things like…
- Hazardous materials: The hazmat symbol is often used so that workers can quickly identify potentially dangerous materials. These symbols can help make basic identification easier, but should also be accompanied by more detailed descriptions of the substance as per OSHA guidelines!
- Flammable materials: Flame signs (
Get creative with both the materials you have available and the specific demands and hazards of your own business in order to effectively make use of color associations in your safety program. Even with common associations, you never want to assume, so have all sign meanings written out in your full safety plan!