Understanding and Meeting OSHA Safety Signage Requirements

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Every day, American workers operate and work around machinery and equipment that could harm or kill them. Thanks to workplace safety efforts, which continue to improve, accidents uncommon. Nevertheless, the over 3 million on-the-job injuries reported in 2014 demonstrate that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

One easy, simple, and cheap way to improve workplace safety is through appropriate safety signage. Clear, effective safety signs not only prevent accidents, but they also increase efficiency and elevate workplace safety awareness.

The benefits of proper safety signage to any employer are clear. What isn’t so clear are the regulatory requirements for these signs. The following outlines where to find these requirements and what they mean in practice.


OSHA and ANSI are the two regulatory bodies that publish standards for safety signage in the workplace. 29 CFR 1910.105, which is OSHA’s Specifications for accident prevention signs and tags, outlines signage design requirements and specifies where safety signage is required.

The ANSI Z535 standard goes still further, specifying standardized coloring and pictograms for different types of hazards. The ANSI standard specifies every aspect of the safety sign:

  • It stipulates sign and label colors.
  • It establishes and defines “signal words,” such as “DANGER” or “WARNING.”
  • It spells out correct text size and style.
  • It specifies the proper placement of signs and labels.

ANSI standards are revised periodically; the most recent revision of the Z535 standard was in 2011. Employers should make sure that any new labels they print comply with this current standard.

Classes of Hazards and Their Signage

OSHA and ANSI categorize safety hazards into three primary classes of severity, each with its corresponding signage.

  • Danger signs alert the reader to the most serious hazards, where he or she must be especially careful. The signal word “DANGER,” preceded by a safety alert symbol, are printed in white letters against a red background. This type of sign indicates that death or serious injury will almost certainly result if a hazard is not avoided.
  • A warning sign is appropriate for a hazard that could cause death or serious injury, but doesn’t pose a risk severe enough to warrant a danger sign. Warning signs include the word “WARNING,” preceded by a safety alert symbol, printed in black letters against an orange background.
  • Caution signs advise of hazards that could result in minor or moderate injury if not avoided. Caution signs include the word “CAUTION,” preceded by a safety alert symbol, printed in black letters against a yellow background. Caution signs are often employed to advise against unsafe practices.

A fourth hazard classification encompasses biological hazards. These alert personnel to the presence of this type of hazard.

Other Types of Safety Signage

Besides just warning of hazards, other types of safety signs can help to promote a safe and orderly work environment. These include:

  • Notice Signs: Using white letters on a blue background, these communicate directions, procedures, and other important information about a machine, a designated area, or equipment. The information conveyed is not related to risk of injury.
  • General Safety Signs: As opposed to alerting the reader of a hazard, these provide helpful safety information. These may relate to first aid, sanitation, or suggested general safety policies. They are printed with white letters on a green background.
  • Admittance Signs: These explain the consequences and potential hazards associated with entering a designated area.
  • Fire Safety Signs: These indicate the location of emergency firefighting equipment and fire exits.
  • Non-Hazard Signs: These simply convey information, such as indicating the way through a facility. Although they have nothing to do with safety hazards, they are still safety signs, since they promote an orderly, safe work environment.

Placement of Safety Signs

OSHA specifies when a safety sign is necessary in 29 CFR 1910.145(f)(3). It states that these:

“Shall be used as a means to prevent accidental injury or illness to employees who are exposed to hazardous or potentially hazardous conditions, equipment or operations which are out of the ordinary, unexpected, or not readily apparent. Tags shall be used until such time as the identified hazard is eliminated or the hazardous operation is completed.”

If these conditions are met, then the OSHA standard specifies that the safety sign placement should be “as near as possible” to the hazard.

Safety signs must be visible and readable from a safe distance. 29 CFR 1910.145(f)(4) requires the signal word (DANGER, WARNING, or CAUTION) to be readable from at least 5 feet away. The logic behind this is to alert a worker of a hazard while he or she still is far enough away to avoid it.

One other important requirement is that the safety sign itself must not present a hazard. For instance, a safety sign with exposed, pointed corners or sharp edges would be its own hazard.