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Safety signs in the workplace

10 February 2021

AS YOU walk through any business – whether that be a high street shop, a prestige office block, a manufacturing plant, a construction site or a local school/hospital – there should be one constant on view across all industries and all locations; the humble safety sign

We all see them on a daily basis, we should all understand them and hopefully we all follow the guidance they provide – in truth, we don’t always stop and study the sign but even on a subliminal level they can play a key part in keeping staff and visitors safe. But are they really worth bothering about – do they really bring a benefit by displaying a message that many of would consider common sense anyway?

The short answer is YES! And for a multitude of reasons – business compliance, safety improvements and perhaps most surprisingly of all – the ability to the ability to grow your business through attracting customers!

One of the simplest explanations for the importance of safety signs is that they are a legal requirement for any workplace, and installing them therefore represents a key element of basic regulatory compliance.

signs are required to be clear, legible, visibly placed and well-maintained

The Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996 mandate that signs are required where significant risks to the health and safety of employees (and others) continue to exist even after all other relevant precautions have been taken. These signs are required to be clear, legible, visibly placed and well-maintained, and should be used in the following circumstances:

- To warn against dangerous and prohibited actions in a certain area

- To highlight safeguards and procedures that must be followed, or equipment that must be worn

- To draw attention to a nearby hazard or potentially dangerous situation

- To direct people towards essential safety gear and fire safety equipment.

If companies fail to meet their legal requirements and something does go wrong, they could be at risk of regulatory fines and severe damage to their reputation, which is why no responsible business should ever underestimate the importance of investing in essential signage.

COVID-19 signage

That idea that safety signage could boost profitability might be surprising to hear and hard to believe but the devastating impact of COVD-19 on businesses during 2020 has helped to highlight how important clear and professional signage is throughout a building.

Research has revealed that 80% of shoppers in the UK feel safer in shops with clear signage. More than 40% of UK shoppers have stopped visiting stores that have unclear signage on social distancing, new research reveals. The study by digital printing solutions firm Roland DG reveals that 78% are more likely to shop in stores with clear practical instructions on social distancing measures.

The findings also indicate that brands risk reputational damage from inadequate COVID-19 signage, with UK shoppers saying the number one emotional impact of poor signage is the feeling businesses are not taking their safety seriously (40%).

The stores with the most unclear signage are clothes shops (21%), followed by supermarkets / grocery stores (19%), and restaurants and bars (16%).

It is apparent that businesses displaying clear and professional signage are more likely to see customers returning through their doors. I am sure we have all seen sheets of A4 paper stuck to a window or door to display a COVID19 message and it is little wonder that such signage does little to enhance customer confidence.

The ability to customise and run corporate colourways throughout the store on signage should not be overlooked. Combining key safety messages with corporate branding can go a long way to encouraging customers back through the door at a time when shops and businesses need them most.

Understanding safety signs

The UK has long since led the way in the development of safety signage, in terms of technical design and comprehension levels. As such, the British Standard BS 5499 was the blueprint for the harmonisation of safety sign design on a global level when ISO 7010 was released in 2011. This international standardization of safety signs meant that a consistency in design was enabled across the world. By using common pictograms and symbols it meant, for the first time, that a fire exit sign in the UK would look the same as it would in any other EU country, ensuring universal recognition/understanding of safety signs could be maximised (even if the sign’s text was displayed in a foreign language) and as our workforces and customers become ever more diverse that cannot be underestimated.

Of course, displaying a sign is one thing but displaying one that is technically correct is not always so straight forward. Many companies will print and supply signage but very few fully understand the complexities involved – hitting specific colourmetrics for the colours used on the sign, knowing the font (style and size) to use, choosing the correct material to print the sign on, choosing the correct size of a sign for the location it is being displayed etc are all areas for consideration and areas often overlooked.

This is perhaps best highlighted when looking at photoluminescent (glow in the dark) signage, used for fire exit signs and an essential aid when it comes to guiding people out of a building if power is out or in smoky conditions. There are varying classifications of photoluminescence (from Class A to Class G) which offer varying levels of luminance and longevity of afterglow. It is important to know that not all signs are equal and to maximise the chance of  evacuating a building in the event of a fire then a higher grade should be considered.

The impact of accidents

The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy has already led to a number of changes to legislation as the government seeks to act on the multiple safety issues the fire revealed. While cladding has been the focus of scrutiny to date there are a lot of other issues that also need to be addressed, among them, signage and wayfinding for firefighters.

In the evidence from Phase 1 of the inquiry, the difficulties firefighters faced when repeatedly going into and out of the building were highlighted. Their efforts were delayed by the building’s poor signage – some floors had no floor numbering at all while others had been handwritten in pen. As a result, firefighters had to pause several times during the operation just to find out which floor they were on as they progressed up the tower. However, even floors with good signage were difficult to identify, due to the density of smoke in the stairwells.

Richard Hippel, a firefighter based in Kensington, said the sixth floor was ‘completely filled with smoke, with zero visibility’. He said: ‘I’d never seen smoke like that in a domestic fire and can only say it’s like smoke when tyres burn. It was the first indication I had that this incident was something unusual.’

As a result of the findings of the inquiry, the government is looking to update the guidance on signage and wayfinding in buildings to aid the fire service in emergency situations. Amendments to The Building Regulations 2010: Approved Document B: Fire safety, Volume 1 – Dwellings and Volume 2 – Buildings other than dwellings, will see a new recommendation for floor identification and flat indication signage within blocks of flats with storeys over 11m.

Similar amendments and improvements were introduced in the USA as a result of the 9/11 attacks where similar issues highlighted the need for more effective safety way guidance systems (SWGS) to be put in place to aid with evacuations and to assist fire crews which resulted in the development of  ISO 16069:2017

The importance of proper maintenance

Any responsible business will already be displaying relevant, conformant safety signs all across their workplace, but proper health and safety stewardship needs to go beyond simply buying the right signage.

It is essential to ensure that all members of staff understand what all of the signs mean – not only by providing proper training, but also by making sure that their messages and pictograms are self-explanatory. Businesses also have a responsibility to keep these notices clearly displayed, unobstructed and well maintained, as a hidden or damaged sign could pose a significant danger to staff wellbeing if an emergency situation occurs.

An employer must provide safety signs where they can help reduce risk and where all other methods of reducing that risk have been employed but a danger to employee health and safety remains. By completing a walk-through of your facilities and working environment it can help you review the suitability of current signage and make observations of locations where new or additional signage may be required.
An effective audit should consider the following four areas:

A: Risk Assessment:

A walk through of the premises will help to a formal risk assessment to:

- Identify risks that may cause harm to employees and/or visitors within your premises

- Qualify the likelihood or possibility of any occurrence or incident likely to cause injury or harm to employees or visitors within the confines of your premises

- Assess the possibility of any consequential injury or harm likely to be caused by any event or incident.

- Define the measures, steps or actions needed to be taken to prevent the possibility of any occurrence likely to cause injury or harm to employees or visitors. Liaise with emergency services and create an emergency plan.

B: Communication, education and training:

You should communicate, educate and train employees and visitors in the actions they need to take to prevent injury or harm to themselves or others in accordance with the health and safety management system. You should take into consideration possible confusion if English is not the first language of staff/visitors during this process.

take into consideration possible confusion if English is not the first language of staff/visitors

C: Application, use, siting and maintenance of safety sign and statutory notices

For an effective application strategy:

- Safety signs should not be surrounded by other signs of a similar size and colour

- Safety signs should be located in areas where colour contrast is good

- Add supplementary text to safety signs to improve comprehensibility and legibility

- Consider whether lighting conditions are good enough to see the safety signs clearly at all times

- Ensure the signage is at a suitable height to prevent the sign being obscured by office furniture – check that the signage can be viewed from all areas of the room.

- Make sure the safety signs used give the complete message and are unambiguous (their design should comply with ISO 7010 standards wherever possible). Once your safety signs are in place, it is important that they are cleaned and visually inspected regularly.  Actions should be taken to remedy defects immediately (this may include fading, vandalism, removal of signage etc).

D: Choosing the right materials and size of sign:

Having established the need for a safety sign, consideration should be given to the substrate from which the sign is made to ensure its suitability for the environment where it is to be displayed (eg internal/external signage). Every substrate has its own unique characteristics. Consider also the viewing distance of signs – a large open plan building may require larger signage then a small office in order to maximise visibility.

In summary, if you consider the relatively low cost to install safety signage against the possible repercussions in the event of an accident/fire then there can be little excuse for not taking the time and effort to ensure your premises are compliant and up to date.