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Safety Symbols & Meanings

OSHA Best Practices Guide
OSHA Safety Signs Best Practices Guides

Written by Steve Hudgik

ANSI Z535.3 provides the specifications for safety symbols that ensure uniform, understandable and effective communication of safety information. This standard specifies four types of safety symbols:

Prohibition Symbols - these symbols identify activities that are prohibited. A symbol showing the activity is covered by a circle with a 45-degree slash.

Hazard Alerting - these symbols identify and warn about specific hazards. The symbol is usually printed in black, although in some cases it may be printed in red.

Mandatory Action - these symbols show an action that is mandatory, meaning the action is required. The most common actions shown by these symbols involve wearing PPE.

Safety Information - there are two categories of safety information symbols. One category are those symbols that provide fire safety information. These symbols identify the location of fire fighting equipment, show pathways to fire exits, identify communication equipment, and provide other information needed by firefighters and paramedics. The second category is for general safety information. These symbols typically identify the location of safety equipment such as eye wash stations, emergency showers and first aid kits.

Safety Symbols and Meanings - Custom Safety Symbols

If there is a standard safety symbol that effectively communicates the needed safety message, that standard safety symbol should be used. Using standard safety symbols provides instant recognition, and helps eliminate confusion. However, in some cases creating a custom safety symbol that addresses a specific situation is best.

ANSI Z535 allows custom symbols to be used. To be effective the symbol must communicate the same message as the text on the label or sign. It should identify the hazard, and either show how the hazard can be avoided or show the consequences of not avoiding the hazard. The objective is to clearly communicate the safety message. This means the symbol should be as simple as possible (have only the essential information), and be easy to recognize and remember.

The following provides a few examples of common standard safety symbols and their meanings:

Safety Symbols and Meanings - Prohibition Symbols

These symbols are used to deliver the message, "Don't Do This!"

No Open Flames / No Smoking - both of the symbols shown here can be warning about the potential for a fire of explosion. For example, these symbols will be seen on signs near gas pumps. In addition, the no smoking symbol may also be used to simply inform people they are in a no smoking area. Don't make assumptions. When you see these symbols, obey them.

Stop - this symbol means to stop, go no further. You may see this symbol on a sign prohibiting a door from being opened. Or there may just be a line on the floor and the sign is telling you not to cross the line. When you see this symbol, follow the instructions on the sign. If there are no instructions, stop and do not pass the sign. If needed, contact your supervisor before entering an area marked by signs with this symbol.

Injury warning - these types of safety symbols are warning indicating that you may become injured should you do a certain action. The safety symbol on the left is warning that the surface is hot and you should not touch it. The symbol on the right can have several meanings. It may be telling you to not pick up the containers in a certain area. Look for text or another sign showing how the containers should be moved, such as using a forklift. This symbol can also be used to deliver the message "lift with your legs not your back." Again, look for addition information such as text associated with the symbol.

No firearms / no photographs - some prohibition symbols may not be related to safety. Some symbols, for example, are used to inform people about security measures. These two symbols tell people that firearms are not allowed and that cameras (taking pictures) are not allowed.

Safety Symbols and Meanings - Hazard Alerting Symbols

The skull and crossbones symbol typically is used to warn about poisonous substances. Because it is also associated with pirates, when warnings must be displayed in areas where there might be children, the Mr. Yuk symbol is commonly used.

Electrical safety symbols - the most common electrical safety symbol is the lightning bolt. Three examples are shown here. A lightning bolt by itself is communicating the presence of electricity, most commonly high voltages. The center symbol is more specific; showing that contact with a wire (or other electrical component) will cause an electrical injury or death. The right-most symbol is indicating that a serious injury or death is possible. In all cases, when you see a lightning bolt, stay away. If you must work near an electrical hazard you must have the appropriate electrical safety training, have the required electrical skills, and be using the necessary PPE.

Slip, trip and fall hazards - slipping, tripping and falling are at the top of the list as causes of workplace injuries. Anytime you see these symbols be aware of your surroundings and the potential to slip, trip or fall.

Pinch, cut and crushing hazards - symbols warning about hazards to the hands, arms or feet are usually very graphic, showing what can happen. When you see these types of safety symbols be aware that not only is there a serious hazard to your hands, but the hazard may include getting other body parts, clothing or hair caught in machinery.

Hazardous substances - these are two of the symbols that warn about hazardous substances. The safety symbol to the left is warning about an inhalation hazard. Keep in mind that many gases have no smell (such as nitrogen or CO2), but can still kill you. The safety symbol to the right is warning about a substance, such as an acid or caustic, that will burn or dissolve your skin.

Safety Symbols and Meanings - Mandatory Action

Mandatory symbols are used to inform people that certain actions or protective equipment is required. Each symbol usually communicates one mandatory action. It is common for signs and labels to have multiple mandatory action symbols.

Hearing protection required - these three symbols all state that hearing protection is required. The middle symbol shows both hearing protection and eye protection, meaning that both are required.

Respirator / dust mask required - there are various levels of breathing protection. The first and third symbols show that a respirator is required. The second and fourth symbols show that a dust mask is required.

Read the manual - all three of these symbols are saying that, "reading the manual" or "reading the instructions" is required. Typically there will be addition information showing actions that cannot be taken until the manual or instructions are read.

Safety Symbols and Meanings - Information Symbols

There are two types of information symbols: those that are related to fire protection and those that are related to emergency equipment.

Safety Symbols and Meanings - Fire Safety Symbols

Fire extinguisher symbols - these are three of the symbols used to indicate the location of a fire extinguisher. The design of the symbol may also identify the type of fire extinguisher.

Fire alarm - there are a variety of symbols that identify the location of a fire alarm. Fire symbols are sometimes used with arrows that show the direction to go to get to the fire equipment identified in the symbol.

Other equipment - other symbols identify the location of other types of equipment that might be used during a fire or emergency. The symbol to the left identifies an automated external defibrillator (AED). The other two symbols identify the location of a phone, and a phone specifically designated for use should there be a fire.

Safety Symbols and Meanings - Emergency Equipment Symbols

Emergency shower - these symbols all show the location of an emergency shower. An emergency shower is used to wash off someone who has been exposed to a hazardous material, such as a corrosive chemical.

Emergency eye wash - these symbols identify the location of an emergency eye wash station. An eye wash station is used to flush the eyes should they be splashed with a hazardous chemical.

First aid supplies - the location of first aid supplies is indicated by a cross.

ANSI Safety Sign Best Practices Guide

A complete reference guide to ANSI Z535

Safety Symbols and Meanings - Making The Safety Signs and Labels You Need

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The information presented in this document was obtained from sources that we deem reliable; Graphic Products does not guarantee accuracy or completeness. Graphic Products, Inc. makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied. Users of this document should consult municipal, state, and federal code and/or verify all information with the appropriate regulatory agency.

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