1.1.5 Symbolic safety signs

Safety signs and warnings are useful tools to help protect the health and safety of employees and workplace visitors.

Safety sign (symbolic safety sign): A sign that conveys a general safety message, by using a combination of colour and geometric shape and that, by the addition of a graphic symbol or text, conveys a particular safety message.

Warning sign: A safety sign that conveys a warning of a hazard/danger.

Safety signs are used to:

  • Draw attention to health and safety hazards
  • Point out hazards that may not be obvious
  • Provide general information and directions
  • Remind employees where personal protective equipment must be worn
  • Show where emergency equipment is located
  • Indicate where certain actions are prohibited

There are four basic categories of safety signs:

  • Prohibitory signs – These signs indicate that certain behaviour is prohibited or must stop immediately, for example, smoking in a “No Smoking” area. The signs are formed by a red circle with a red diagonal bar running from top left to bottom right of the circle, on a white background.
  • Warning/Caution signs – These are signs, which give warning or notice of a hazard. The signs are black outlined triangles filled in by the safety colour – yellow. The symbol or text is in black. The combination of black and yellow identifies the need for CAUTION.
  • Mandatory signs – These signs indicate that a specific course of action is required, for example, EYE PROTECTION MUST BE WORN. The safety colour is blue with the symbol or text in white. The sign is circular in shape.
  • Information signs – These signs provide information about safe conditions. The signs are square in shape, coloured green with white text or symbol. The safety colour green is associated with GO.

The choice of colour also draws attention to the probability of a hazard causing harm. For example, the colour red is used to indicate a definite hazard. A potential hazard is communicated by the colour yellow.

The pertinent colours are:

  • Green: General Information Signs
  • Yellow: Warning Signs
  • Blue: Instructions on Mandatory Requirements
  • Red: Prohibition – and Fire Fighting Signs

When employees are aware of the hazards around them and take the necessary precautions, the possibility of an injury, illness or other loss is minimized.

However while safety signs and colours are valuable in warning of hazards, they are not substitutes for eliminating or reducing those hazards, whenever possible.

The shape of a Safety Sign is also significant to its purpose as shown below:

Examples are:

Both are circles = prohibition or mandatory

These signs serve completely different purposes but they all point out specific “information” as per their rectangular designs.

The following table provided by Safety Signs shows a list of signs and its meanings:

Some best practices with regards to signage are:

After determining your needs, work with all health and safety representatives and committee to set standards for signs and colours to use throughout the workplace.

Ensure the signs and colours are used consistently. Research shows that companies that have implemented a uniform sign and colour system to make hazards more visible and easy to identify have successfully lowered their injury frequency rates. Workers know that signs and colours mean the same thing even when they work in different departments or plant locations. It also enables employees to quickly locate first aid, firefighting and other emergency equipment.

The signs and colours in your workplace should provide enough information for persons to protect their health and safety.

Signs, especially those that indicate hazards, should:

  • Attract a person’s attention
  • Clearly identify the nature of the hazard
  • Specify the immediate action required
  • Be posted in a place that provides enough time for a person to read the sign and act accordingly
  • Be easily recognised and understood by all employees
  • Reflect the needs of those who have visual limitations or who do not speak English
  • Be sized or placed according to the importance of the message

Posting Signs

Signs should be clearly visible, positioned in the line of sight, and free from any obstructions or clutter.

Keep signs well-lighted. Observers should be able to read a sign easily and recognise its safety colour.

Lighting should also be sufficient to make any hazard clearly visible.

Post the sign within an appropriate distance from the hazard it is pointing out. An observer must have enough time to see and read the sign and do whatever is necessary to keep safe.

In general, signs should be displayed alone. When signs must be grouped together, place them in an appropriate order.

Use no more than three symbols in the same location.

Ensure that directional signs are visible from all directions. Include arrows on exit signs wherever the direction is not obvious. Directional signs should be posted at a consistent height throughout the workplace. They should also be posted at appropriate locations or decision points so that the route to take is always clear.

Using Easy to Read and Easy to Understand Signs

Help employees and workplace visitors understand signs quickly by using clear language and symbols than can be learned and recognised easily.

Keep symbols as simple as possible; eliminate details that don’t make the message clearer.

Avoid using signs that contain only text messages. A combination of text and symbols is generally the most effective.

Consider multi-lingual signs if you have employees who do not speak English.

Use capital letters for the first letter of the first word and small letters for the rest.

Use appropriate warning words. These can be in capital letters, if you prefer. For example:

  • Danger (or DANGER) – to warn of a definite hazard
  • Caution (or CAUTION) – to warn of a potential hazard

Limit one message to a sign. To convey more than one message, use separate signs.

Keep colours to a minimum. This emphasizes the most important signs and colour markings, and also prevents confusion and visual fatigue.

Use colours consistently throughout the workplace.

Ensure that employees who are colour blind (specifically, red-green confusing) can understand signs and coloured controls. Use symbol signs with text. Use flashing lights, audible alarms or signs beside coloured controls.

Signs should have rounded or blunted corners to prevent sharp edges, burrs, splinters or other sharp projections.

Position fastening devices carefully, so that they do not become hazards as well.


  • Maintain safety signs in good condition. Inspect signs during regular workplace inspections
  • Replace worn, faded, damaged, and outdated signs
  • Change signs that are often misunderstood or overlooked
  • Remove signs that are redundant or no longer needed
  • Repaint areas where safety colours have faded