A Sign of the Times


We have all seen safety signs that are either obvious or downright stupid. We have also missed important safety signs because they are lost in a sea of other signs.

But over-communication and information overload is a sign of the times. The UK regulations setting out the general principles of design and use of signs are the Safety Signs and Signals Regulations 1996. Yes, even that was pretty obvious. What seems to have been forgotten is the principle that safety signs are very low down on the list in the hierarchy of control. Indeed, where the risk is adequately controlled by other means, or the risk is trivial, no signs are needed. This is simply because they don’t add anything. If they don’t help people, don’t use them. In fact, too many signs cause us to miss the ones that really are important.

You need to be careful here though because, depending on which signs we are talking about, there can be extra specific regulations for signage (like fire) that give you little choice in the matter.

In practice, even where you are given the choice, it is sometimes quite debateable when deciding whether the remaining risk is too trivial for a sign or that employees would still benefit from a reminder or warning. Hence, why so many avoid the issue and put up the signs regardless.

With the advent of digital information displays on motorways, it seems that they are not allowed to contain nothing. Instead we must be told we are travelling through fog, reminded to take a break, asked whether we have checked our oil level regularly or whether our cars are ready for Winter (but, of course not permitted to stop on the hard shoulder to check). We are also informed how long it will take us to reach the next junction (always optimistic, and guaranteed to make you fume when the reality is that you are stuck in traffic).

When it comes to safety signs, I have seen a fair share of ones of little or no value. I saw a sign on the entrance door to an industrial kitchen stating “Caution. There is a danger of slips, trips and falls in this area”. Why stop at that? What about the deep fat fryer, the collection of knives and meat slicers? Why not pin the entire risk assessment to the door?
Outside the same workplace entrance, an official warning sign stated “Health and safety at Work Act 1974. All persons entering these premises must comply with all safety regulations under the above Act”. Now how helpful is that?

Interestingly, there has been a body of research conducted on human behaviour in fires. One of the conclusions for some types of buildings (this echoes my own experience) is that people tend to use the familiar in trying to exit from a building in an emergency. That is, they tend to use the route they came in to get out and may not even notice a fire exit sign unless their familiar route was seriously impeded. Fire exit signs are of course important but not nearly so important as building design.

So, let’s have a little more thought and a little less clutter.