OHS Canada Magazine

Sign of the Times

September 10, 2011
By Jason Contant
Health & Safety

Signage in work environments is designed to help alert workers to potential hazards — not create them.

That very problem recently surfaced in British Columbia where there has been a proliferation of commercial signs, posters and banners on utility poles.

Ted Olynyk, manager of community relations for the Vancouver Island region of BC Hydro, reported in May that signs and nails used to affix the mostly advertising messages were putting line crews on the wrong side of safe climbs. Businesses were reminded that poles were needed for work, not meant to serve as free advertising vehicles.

Work signage, emblazoned with a simple caution, is meant to sell. But the message being sold is safety and vigilance.

Safety signage communicates critical information through the use of bright colours, bold text and intuitive pictograms, notes information from Brady Canada in Richmond Hill, Ontario. As with other visual cues — think lighting, vehicle markings, machine lockout tags and non-audible alarms — signage helps alert workers to danger before it is too late.


Jamie Button, customer operations manager for Brady Canada, recommends that employers conduct a risk assessment to identify any issues of concern. These may include pedestrian walkways or locations where electrical hazards are present, Button says.

No stranger to plant walkarounds, the 17-year veteran of Brady Canada reports having seen environments where hazards have been correctly identified, and others where they definitely have not.


Button points out that, oftentimes, employers colour code work areas in easily identifiable ways: quarantined areas are red, caution zones are yellow, and green areas may indicate pedestrian-friendly locations.

Under one of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) standards dealing with emergency response issues, a colour-coded rating system has been adopted to rank related hazards from 0 (minimal) to 4 (severe). As such, NFPA 704: Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response categorizes health hazards as blue, flammable hazards as red, and unstable or reactive hazards as yellow.

“If anybody is working on equipment where any one of these things can happen, there has to be a ‘right-to-know’ tag,” reports Joel Hershkowitz, director of marketing at IDESCO Corp. in New York City.


Signs can be general, allowing for their use in many different work environments. Other times, Hershkowitz says that safety signs are tailored with specific applications in mind, such as those involving flammable materials, hazardous substances or electrical dangers.

Citing a work site with a natural gas or petroleum pipeline, Hershkowitz notes a related safety sign would not only signal the presence of the pipeline, but also indicate both the operator and emergency contact.

It may be that no other industry has as many different sign options as electrical utilities — perhaps because consequences can be immediately harmful. Among its offerings, IDESCO has signs made of rust-resistant aluminum, durable polyethylene or non-reflective steel that feature succinct, but knowing messages, such as “Warning: Underground Electric Cable” or “Danger: High Voltage.”

In a workplace that houses nuclear-powered equipment, the company adds that there may be both an attached tag to prevent operation and a nearby warning sign: “Do Not Enter — Radioactive Area.”

With regard to machinery, lockout tags often are identified by red and white stripes. These are “an announcement of the danger,” Hershkowitz says, and though not mandatory, many workplaces opt for tags that sport the striped feature.

South of the border, lockout tags that typically measure between 13 and 15 centimetres long and approximately seven centimetres wide are often made of a hard plastic material. These must note, “Do not operate,” and meet pull test requirements established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in Washington, D.C., says Hershkowitz. The provisions also have been adopted here in Canada.

At its heart, the best signage is about prompt communication. But that intended message needs to be understood.

Button recalls visiting a chicken plant where most workers were Portuguese-speaking and company officials wanted safety signs to take into account both language and cultural considerations. “They bought their own labelling system,” he says. “They couldn’t buy anything out of anybody’s catalogue; they had to do everything in a customized way.”


Understanding can be further enhanced — and language gaps bridged — with pictograms. Button says he would “always strongly recommend” that pictograms be used, but would like to see these also included in signage for controlled products under the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System. The pictograms could denote that materials are toxic, biohazardous, infectious, corrosive or dangerously reactive.

Having things be perfectly clear may also benefit health care facilities, notes a study to be published in November’s issue of Applied Ergonomics. Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the United States analyzed responses of participants with both normal and impaired vision to a variety of health care pictograms.

Findings indicate “high-contrast signage with consistent pictograms involving human figures (not too detailed or abstract) is most identifiable.” As such, it is recommended health care signage be standardized to “speed up and aid the cognitive thought process in detecting signage and determining meaning.”

Button says that hazardous areas need to be clearly identified; perhaps involving use of both floor tape and signage to mark the area. With machine guarding, for example, “you need to indicate things like hot surfaces, pinch points, cut hazards, things like that,” he suggests.


Perhaps nothing makes a sign more immediately apparent than having it literally glow in the dark. Often visible at distances of 15 to 30 metres — even in blackout or heavy smoke conditions — photoluminescent signs are ideal during electrical power failures.

Brian Astl, the president of Lind Equipment Canada in Markham, Ontario, notes that photoluminescent material can “absorb light during the day, but then when the lights go out, expel that energy back out as visible light.”

It was this type of sign that helped guide survivors of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Hershkowitz reports the twin towers had glow-in-the-dark exit signs and arrows on the stairs. “Thousands of people were saved and one of the reasons was the photoluminescent signs helped people find the staircase and walk down,” he says.

For environments that require safety lighting to complete work tasks, photoluminescent materials do not offer sufficient usable light, says Astl. If more lighting is necessary to complete tasks safely and help keep dangers at bay, he suggests considering three factors: work application, whether or not the work is being done in a hazardous location, and which lighting technology to use.

The task at hand will dictate what is needed. Some choices include task lighting, which lights a specific piece of equipment or area where one or two people are working; individual lighting, a smaller version of task lighting, such as a headlight; area lighting, like flood or string lights that illuminate a broader area where multiple people are working; and explosion-proof portable lights for hazardous locations, including those containing flammable gas or dust.

Available from Lind Equipment is a rechargeable work light featuring three LEDs that last as long as seven hours on a single charge. An adjustable polycarbonate lens allows the light to transform from a work light beam to a flood light beam. “The battery can even be changed inside the hazardous location,” notes a product information sheet from the company.

Astl would count himself a big fan of LED lighting. “One of the amazing things you can do with LEDs, because they require such little voltage to run them, is you can actually create lighting products now that are intrinsically safe.”

Cords on some incandescent or fluorescent lighting options can create trip hazards, he says, but LEDs free people working in hazardous locations from any such concerns.

Another advantage is that LED generates far less heat than incandescent or fluorescent lights. “If you are running a 500-watt quartz halogen flood light that sits on the ground, that generates a massive amount of heat. If you kick that over and there are oily rags or some other flammable hazard around, you’ve got a real problem,” Astl cautions.

He acknowledges that LED lights are more expensive than incandescent or fluorescent options, but argues that energy savings over the lifetime of the product (as much as 50,000 hours) more than make up for the initial cost. “We think an average person can save a $125 a year alone in energy costs by using our new LED dock light versus the traditional 500-watt quartz halogen dock light,” Astl contends.

Traditionally, LEDs were used almost exclusively for flashlights and they provided concentrated, purple beams. The technology has since advanced to the point where it can be used for applications like white flood lighting, which is easier on the eyes.

“We’re seeing people from hospitals to electricians to warehouses using them as dock lights, to the oil field using them in inspection lighting to the military. It’s really going to be broad technology,” Astl predicts.


Sometimes, getting noticed requires both a bit of light and marking the spot. Vehicle conspicuity markings, for example, improve the visibility of rail cars, trucks, school buses and vehicles in the public works, emergency response and law enforcement sectors.

To be effective, these types of markings need to be in the direct line of headlights, says Douglas Bardeau, technical service representative at 3M Canada’s Traffic Safety Systems Division in London, Ontario. Surfaces to be made conspicuous should be flat, smooth and perpendicular to the light source, Bardeau explains.

It is best to remember, however, that any powder-coated painted surfaces and some types of plastic (such as polyethylene, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride) provide poor attachment properties, he cautions.

Depending on the application and time of day, different colours should be used, Bardeau recommends. For nighttime conspicuity, bright colours that can be used include white, yellow and yellow-green; dark colours include orange, red, green and blue.

Flourescent colours offer daytime conspicuity, while fluorescent retroflective colours (which return light directly to its source by focusing light through a spherical, glass optical element; for example, a bead) provide both day and nighttime conspicuity.

For some permanent applications, Bardeau explains that conspicuity markings are made of a pressure-sensitive adhesive film that contains prismatic retroreflectors. For slow-moving vehicles, a suitable thin self-adhesive film contains glass beads, he adds.

There are a number of standards for conspicuity markings, depending on the type of vehicle in question. These include the Canadian Standard Association’s (CSA) D250 standard for school buses, NFPA 1901 for fire trucks, and in the United States, the Department of Transportation’s DOT-C2 regulation for highway tractor-trailers, Bardeau reports.


Whether work conditions demand the use of conspicuity markings, safety signage, lockout tags or emergency and task lighting, providing workers with a visual heads-up is the first step in ensuring that they avoid the hazard.

“There’s much to be gained by creating a workplace where employees are guided by visual information that tells them at a glance what to do, how to do it properly, and where to quickly find what they need,” suggests a white paper available from Milwaukee-based Brady Worldwide, Inc.


X Marks the Spot

Many companies are increasingly adopting “lean manufacturing” principles, such as the concept of a visual workplace, reports Jamie Button, customer operations manager for Brady Canada in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

The concept of a visual workplace is self-explanatory, notes a white paper from Brady Canada, the idea being to display visible information at a glance and at the point of use. The approach helps to eliminate questions and ensure that best practices are followed.

By clearly displaying instructions, warnings, standards and other critical operations knowledge, the paper says, these visual tools can properly guide actions, make it easier to detect abnormalities in products, equipment and processes, and provide workers real-time feedback.

Consider that bin markers, floor marking tapes, shadow boards and tool identification labels encourage returning items to their proper place. This eliminates any time that would have been wasted on searching for misplaced items. In some work environments, colour coding can be employed to identify proper parts or tools for the job at hand. “You’ll simplify training, prevent mistakes, reduce cycle times and improve safety,” the paper notes.

In a Flash

Workplaces can be noisy, some especially so. In settings where noise is high enough to interfere with hearing or interpreting audible alarms, a visual fix may be in order.

Featuring steady, flashing or strobe lights, these alarms can prove useful in a variety of locations: meeting and conference rooms; classrooms; cafeterias; filing and photocopy rooms; employee break rooms; and dressing, examination and treatment rooms, notes an e-tool from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), based in Washington, D.C.

The OSHA information states that flashing and steady lights come with different coloured covers to gain even more notice, while strobe lights use high-intensity flash tubes that make them a good fit in situations where ambient light levels would make traditional rotating to flashing lights difficult to distinguish.


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