The Difference Between Life and Death: Choosing the Right Safety Signal Words

In an ideal world, the workplace would be hazard-free and safe from potential injuries and accidents.

The truth is, however, many industrial operations involve a certain amount of risk that can’t be controlled through engineering measures, administrative controls, or personal protective equipment.

For decades, environmental, health and safety professionals have preached the value of placing hazard-alerting safety signs in certain areas and situations. In fact, as early as 1914, the word “danger” and arrow signs were used to point to workplace hazards.

Today’s signs embody the latest research, proper risk level signal words and U.S. court-driven principles that define the content of a proper warning.


ANSISignal Words Classify Hazards

Signal words like Danger, Warning, Caution and Notice each have a specific connotation that can mean the difference between life and death. Using them correctly on your signs, decals and labels helps ensure that people from all backgrounds can recognize and understand the potential danger.

The good news is that determining which signal word to use is easy. ISO, ANSI and SAE all provide a relatively consistent system for classifying hazards.

To ensure you’re using the proper signal words, follow these three steps:


  1. Assess the degree of potential injury or damage.

Once you’ve identified a potential hazard exists, the first step is to identify the correct signal word for it. The best way to do that is assess how much injury or damage would occur if the signage was ignored. Hazards that gravely injury or kill an individual, or destroy property or equipment should be considered severe. Classify a hazard as minor if an injured person will recover or if damaged equipment or property can be repaired.

  1. Determine how likely the damage is to occur.

In your evolution, make the distinction between what will happen or what could happen if the hazard signage is ignored. For example, if someone touches a live electrical wire, it will shock them. In fact, it will happen every time unless the person takes the proper precautions. If, however, someone tampers with a moving belt, it could harm them, but just tapping the belt with a finger may not cause any injury at all.

  1. Select the appropriate signal word and color.

After you’ve assessed the potential for and likelihood of injury or damage, it’s time to select the appropriate signal word for your hazard signage.

Danger indicates the presence of a hazard that will cause severe injury, death or substantial property damage if ignored. Danger appears on a red background.

Warning indicates a hazardous situation that, if not avoided, could result in serious injury or death or substantial property damage. Warning appears on an orange background.

Caution indicates a hazardous situation that, if not avoided, will or could result in minor or moderate injury or property damage if ignored. Caution appears on a yellow background.

Notice notifies people of important installation, operation or maintenance information that is not hazard related. A notice sign appears on a blue background and is never used for hazard signage.

Safety Instructions is the signal word used to provide explanatory information like instructions and procedures. More definitive words can be used in the signal word panel, e.g., Boiler Shutdown Procedure or Locking Procedure.

Your safety sign system is a direct reflection of your company’s safety culture. Taken together, your sign system visually demonstrates your care and concern for the health and safety of your employees, guests, visitors, subcontractors and temporary workers.

By properly following this proven, three-step assessment, you’ll be able to produce effective hazard signage that provides important information accurately, concisely and with the appropriate level of urgency about the risk at hand.


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