The History of Safety Signs
If you’re in the process of buying safety signs for your workplace, semiotics may not be the first thing that springs to mind. However, semiotics is at the core of how and why signs work, particularly safety signs. Semiotics refers to the study of all the various aspects of symbols and signs, and how they help us to communicate important and meaningful information.
When it comes to safety signs, visual interpretations need to be more immediate and easier to understand and digest than verbal instructions. Safety signs are vital in the workplace, as they help employees and visitors safely negotiate both the area and the apparatus within it.
Safety signs are coded to send messages according to their colour, shape and the images they portray. Semiotics is a fascinating area, and even a quick look at the hows and whys of successful signage will enhance your understanding enormously.
Civilisations have always found ways to communicate pictorially, especially when language was in its infancy, such as drawings and paintings on the walls of caves, hieroglyphic inscriptions on tombs in ancient Egypt and runic symbols. In fact, it could be said we are returning to our pictorial roots when we use emojis and other icons in electronic messages.
The Romans used milestones to mark out distances along roads, while brewers in Britain in the Middle Ages had to display a sign, often carved in stone, outside their premises, or risk losing their license to sell their goods.
Safety signs came into their own during industrialisation and when cars first emerged. In 1968, a convention in Vienna made a move to standardise certain shapes and colours of road and safety signs so they would be recognisable in different places, which finally came into effect in 1978. In today’s hectic world, we need safety signs more than ever to protect us.
In terms of how signage has developed, the emergency exit green running person is a good example, as it’s a relatively recent development, first appearing in the 1980s. A skull and crossbones, on the other hand, has been a symbol for poison for more than 1,000 years, while signage relating to danger was first introduced in the early 19th century.
In 1946, the University of California created a sign to indicate radioactivity that is now black on yellow, but was then magenta on blue, which sounds as if it might have been a little too discreet to be a genuine hazard-warning sign.
The duties of safety signage
When it comes to designing, selecting and implementing safety signage, there are four obligations to be met. It must:
Mandatory information is designed to tell people what they must do to remain safe, such as wear a hard hat in a designated area. Prohibitive information tells people what they can’t do to prevent harm to them and others. Safeguarding information highlights how people can get to safety, while warning information requires immediate attention as it signals a dangerous situation and the need for direct action.
Often considered to be the most important element when designing a safety sign, colour emits the most immediate signal to your brain. Thus, primary colours as well as colour blends are used to indicate:
- Danger: Red, sometimes orange
- Potential hazard, so take care: Yellow
- Vital information, so pay attention: Blue
- Safe to proceed, all systems go: Green
These are the very basic levels at which such signage operates. Colour combinations are also used to carry powerful messages, depending on the circumstances. It’s also important to note that, for colours to be effective, they must take up a certain minimum percentage of the sign area. For example:
- Red: A dominant colour, even a small amount tends not to weaken and automatically alerts us to danger psychologically, not least because it’s the colour of blood.
- Yellow: A stimulating colour and very visible to humans; at least 50 per cent of the sign must be yellow to trigger our attention.
- Blue: Associated with intelligence, wisdom and power; at least 50 percent of the sign must be blue to reinforce mandatory commands.
- Green: Affiliated with nature, liberty and peace; at least 50 per cent of the sign must be green to reassure us all is well.
In the context of the colours representing various stages of alert or information, certain shapes have emerged which, combined with these colours, offer a more sophisticated range of communication. The basic shapes are as follows:
- Triangle: Warning
- Square: Usually provides safety information
- Circle: Prohibits certain actions if red, gives mandatory information if blue
Sometimes more than one sign is displayed, particularly in workspaces, to provide extra information to employees and visitors. For example, internationally-recognised signs can be grouped together to clarify the status of a facility. So, a yellow triangle might warn of hazards in an area, a red circle could indicate that there is no unauthorised entry and a blue circle may instruct all visitors to report to reception.
There have been many shifts in signage, and today there are specialist symbols pertaining to individual industries as well as the general health and safety signs we all know. The classification of chemical hazards has undergone enormous changes, with new warning signs resembling red-edged diamonds containing information about toxic substances, fire hazards and potentially-explosive materials.
This is vital information for those working in highly-customised premises, and as this strand of signage progresses it will no doubt be followed by other specific industry-related signage developments.