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Safety Sign Formats

Major changes are occurring in U.S. standards

Safety symbols were the topic of this column in the March/April issue. To bring an important development in the standards to the attention of engineers using product safety labeling, this column will discuss the formats of the safety labels used in the United States. 

To a large degree, the format of a safety label is symbolic in nature. When you look at the label, you know you are looking at a safety label by virtue of its color and the use of what are called "signal words" (e.g., DANGER, WARNING, or CAUTION). The 2002 revision of the ANSI Z535 standards, due out early this summer, makes obsolete the old ANSI Z35 sign formats that have been in use for many years (see Figure 1). Companies that use these formats should replace them with safety signs or labels that meet the new standards.

Figure 1. Old Z35 safety sign and label formats that are now obsolete.

To understand the change, some background information is needed. First, the ANSI Z535 standards are used in the United States for defining the proper format and content of safety signs and labels. Although the standards are voluntary, they are held up in U.S. courts as the state of the art. A product manufacturer's legal "duty to warn" is to meet or exceed the standards. Therefore, a manufacturer can choose not to use the latest version of the ANSI Z535 standards. However, should a product liability lawsuit occur, the manufacturer will need to defend its choice as one that exceeded the standards. 

The OSHA regulations for safety signs (1910.144) were written in the 1970s and were based on the ANSI Z53 Safety Color Standard and the Z35 Safety Sign Standards. The committees responsible for these standards were combined in 1979 to form the ANSI Z535 committee. The ANSI Z535 series of standards was first published in 1991 and replaced the Z53 and Z35 documents. 

In the 1991 version of the Z535 standards, the old Z35 style of sign was kept and appears in the ANSI Z535.2 Standard for Environmental and Facility Safety Signs. As an exception, the ANSI Z535.4 Standard for Product Safety Signs and Labels allowed the Z35 formats to be used for product safety labels as well. 

In the 1998 revision of the ANSI Z535 standards, the Z35 formats became an alternate format for safety signs, labels, and tags, and the preferred format was changed to the Z535.4 product safety label format. In the 2002 revision, the old Z35 formats have been eliminated. The Z535.4 formats are now the only formats allowed in all of the Z535 standards (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Proper ANSI Z535 safety sign and label formats (vertical formats shown).

There are several reasons why the Z535 committee removed the old Z35 formats: 

It achieves the goal of a uniform national system of hazard recognition—a system that now applies to both the signs on walls and the signs and labels that appear on products. 

The newer format includes the safety alert symbol. This symbol is the triangle with an exclamation mark that appears to the left of the signal word DANGER, WARNING, or CAUTION. It serves to indicate a personal injury hazard. The change in formatting makes this symbol universal on all U.S. personal injury–related safety signs and labels. 

Removing the colored background from the text portion of the old orange warning and old yellow caution signs makes the text more legible. 
The newer format more easily accommodates symbols—an element that is becoming increasingly important as our country's population becomes more diverse. 

In practical terms, the change in the standards means that danger-in-a-red-oval signs, orange warning signs, and yellow caution signs are no longer acceptable (see Figure 3). This does not necessarily mean that equipment in the field will need to be retrofitted with the newer labels. However, it does mean that only ANSI Z535.4–formatted safety labels should be applied to products now being manufactured or reconditioned for sale. Everyone who specifies safety labeling should be made aware of this change so that their company can immediately make the transition to current compliant safety labels. To do otherwise is to risk product liability litigation in the future.

Figure 3. Old and new safety label comparisons. (Note: New labels are shown in the horizontal format.) New labels should convey specific hazard, consequence, and avoidance information.

Geoffrey Peckham
president of 
Hazard Communication Systems 
(Milford, PA)
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© ADOLPH Verlag GmbH - Letztes Update 03.05.2004