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Which Safety Symbols Do You Need To Be Aware Of?

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A picture paints a thousand words, and likewise, safety symbols provide a quick and effective way of managing workplace risks. How can they be optimised at your premises?

It’s a sign of the times that workplace notices, messages and indicators are not only highly diverse but also prolific. This includes a list of safety signs that are a health and safety compliance necessity, for every employer.

The problem comes when your personnel and site visitors start to experience ‘word blindness’ and information fatigue, making it possible for them to miss vital safety pointers. This is why understanding and using safety symbols correctly in your workplace is so important.

Humans get 90% of their information from visual input. That makes graphics instantly noticeable, but they are also more memorable than text alone. For example, a study showed that a set of words had a recall rate of 10% after three days. However, when the same words appeared with a visual reference, the recall rate after three days jumped to an impressive 65%.

This adds weight to the advantages of using safety symbols effectively, to make sure your risk management messages are not only seen but also remembered

Let’s look at the meaning of workplace safety symbols, and how to use them effectively.

Main types of safety symbols

In workplaces the world over, you are likely to see 4 types of safety signs and symbols. These are universally used as a system to manage risks but also indicate the nature and severity of the safety issue.

The classifications used are prohibition, warning, mandatory and emergency. To understand the correct use of safety symbols, it’s important to know the basic differences between these.

Prohibiting symbols

These would be signs and symbols that have a red ring and diagonal line on them, to draw attention to something that is not allowed. For example, on public roads, they indicate manoeuvres that are prohibited.

Examples of how prohibitive symbols are used to manage workplace risks include no smoking, do not touch, or do not enter signs.

Office safety signage is often primarily indicating something not allowed for safety reasons. Such as a sign to prohibit switching off a device, or using a tap for drinking water.

Warning symbols

This type of safety symbol would be framed by a yellow triangle, often with a black graphic and black edging.

As the name implies, these are types of safety signs used to show a potential peril. Such as warning that touching something could result in an electric shock, or highlighting a biological hazard. They are vital in site traffic management to avoid pedestrian injuries.

Mandatory action symbols

Rather than telling people what NOT to do, you use these safety symbols to indicate necessary safety actions.

Mandatory action symbols can be found circular or rectangular, and both blue and white signs are used.

Examples of the sort of information these safety symbols would be used for include hand washing reminders, where face masks must be worn and places where specialist PPE is essential.

Emergency indicators

This leaves us with the final category of safety symbol, one indicating emergency assistance or support. Green rectangular or square-shaped signs – usually with a white graphic on a green background – can be used to show emergency exits and the location of first aid equipment, for example.

Specialist safety symbols

Though the above way of classifying safety issues on signs is widely used for many workplaces, there are some symbols that are specific to certain industries or materials. Such as the hazard warnings that apply to chemicals, which in the UK are enforced by the HSE.

They are still widely understood though, as there is nothing ambiguous about a skull and crossbones symbol! The same applies to signs that indicate inflammable materials, incorporating a flame graphic.

Is your premises clear on safety symbols and signs?

Now you know what safety symbols to be aware of, you might wonder ‘why do we need safety signs?’ – well, ultimately it’s to keep the workplace safe.

However, there’s more to it than simply putting up some safety signs. A big challenge is keeping workplace messaging up to date, including using safety symbols effectively. This requires regular risk assessments and projects to renew, revise or even re-position safety symbols for maximum impact.

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