How international safety signs and graphical symbols help reduce risks to people

Issue 39 – June 2012

This article by Barry Gray first appeared in ISO Focus+ May 2012 and is summarised here with permission from ISO.

Crossing language and cultural barriers, internationally understood safety signs and graphical symbols can mitigate risks and avoid potentially dangerous situations.

International Organization for Standardization's (ISO's) technical committee ISO/TC 145, Graphical symbols, subcommittee 2, works hard in this area, ensuring these signs and symbols contribute to increased safety in the workplace, home, car, and elsewhere.

Used locally, understood globally

Why is a sign's graphical symbol so important?

Firstly, graphical symbols are international as they do not rely on language. In our globalised world, internationally standardised graphical symbols enable everyone to recognise and react rapidly to hazardous situations.

Secondly, graphical symbols can be easier to display and be more obvious and visible than a written message. A simple text-free message can be more obvious and visible. The symbol can also be larger than a sign with words.

Thirdly, people who find it difficult to read words or letters often find symbols easier to understand. Similarly, well-designed graphical symbols can assist those with vision problems.

Types of safety signs

Safety signs are a combination of colour, shape, and graphical symbol. The colour and shape help users to recognise the type of sign.

  • Warning signs highlight potential hazards and enable people to take appropriate action.
  • The registered safety signs in ISO 7010:2011 Graphical symbols – Safety colours and safety signs – Registered safety signs, include the warning sign for electricity, seen in workplaces and in public areas, and the radioactive material sign.
  • The water-safety signage Standard, ISO 20712-1:2008 Water safety signs and beach safety flags – Part 1:Specifications for water safety signs used in workplaces and public areas, indicates potential hazards such as underwater obstructions.
  • Prohibition signs warn that a specific behaviour is forbidden.
  • Fire equipment signs let people know the equipment's location and/or identification.
  • Mandatory action signs indicate that a specific action has to be taken and tend to appear in workplaces. For example, signs covering personal protection equipment instruct operatives to wear appropriate clothing such as head or eye protection. Although people should have safety instructions, the graphical symbols remind them of when and where safety equipment should be worn.
  • Safe condition signs cover emergency evacuation and safety equipment, for example the location of first-aid equipment.

Emergency evacuation

Perhaps some of the most important examples of safety signs are those used for emergency evacuation. When a fire breaks out or a tsunami occurs, it is essential that people can find their way to a place of safety by a safe, clearly signed route. Well positioned, standardised signing is vital to ensure that those at risk evacuate in an orderly, calm, and safe manner, even in an unfamiliar country where the language is not understood and panic is possible.

As shown in ISO 23601:2009 Safety identification – Escape and evacuation plan signs, signs also appear on escape and evacuation plan signs in places such as hotels, factories, and offices. Knowing the safe route in an emergency could make the difference between life and death.

Similarly, ISO 16069:2004 Graphical symbols – Safety signs – Safety way guidance systems (SWGS) covers safety-way guidance systems, combining safety signs with route and doorway markings.

ISO 20712-3:2008 Water safety signs and beach safety flags – Part 3: Guidance for use, covers tsunami evacuation and the optimum use of water safety signs and beach safety flags.

Other ways symbols are used

Other types of graphical symbol also help to increase understanding and reduce risk. Graphical symbols for use on equipment can have the same virtues of recognisability. For example, symbols in our cars enable us to quickly understand controls such as windscreen wipers and horn, increasing road safety. In the workplace and at home, we benefit from the globally recognisable symbols on equipment.

For the benefit of all

Together with its subcommittees, ISO/TC 145 takes its role seriously to make sure graphical symbols contribute to the well-being of people worldwide.

ISO/TC 145 has also developed Standards for design principles to ensure the best possible results.

All safety signs and symbols are available via the ISO Online Browsing Platform.

The author, Barry Gray, is Chair of ISO/TC 145, Graphical symbols and was previously Chair of ISO/TC 145/SC 1, Public information symbols.

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