Open-access content 28th June 2010
Workplace signs are an important fixture in any environment but employers must be aware of various mandatory, legal, and health and safety requirements surrounding their use.
by Mark Bartlett
1 July 2010
Serious breaches to health and safety legislation, such as inadequate or non-existent warning signs, not only put staff and other people’s lives at risk but can also lead to serious consequences. With the Corporate Manslaughter legislation now in force, employers who do not comply with the law and act negligently could be very harshly treated by the courts.
Profits and reputation can be eroded as a result of injury claims brought by employees and visitors to the workplace and research also indicates that caring employers, promoting health and safety in the workplace, are more likely to retain staff. However, it can often be confusing for employers and facilities managers to know what signs are legally required and what signs are there solely to help prevent an accident or emergency.
The legal requirements
The Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996 were brought in as part of a drive to standardise the rules across the EU. The regulations cover a whole range of different ways of communicating safety messages including alarms, illuminated signals and spoken instructions.
These regulations require employers to provide specific safety signs whenever there is a risk that has not been avoided or controlled by other means, for example by engineering controls and safe systems of work. There is no need to provide a sign where it would not help to reduce that risk or where the risk is not significant.
There are specific requirements for the shape, colour and pattern of safety signs. Any sign must contain a symbol or pictogram and be of a specified colour which clearly defines its meaning. For example, a warning triangle – yellow with a black border – denotes that a hazard is present; mandatory warning signs – coloured blue and white – notify employees or visitors that certain actions must be taken. Supplementary text may also be used to aid understanding but text-only signs are not permitted.
Employers are legally required to provide safety signs which:
• Identify fire exits and fire safety procedures eg, assembly point signs
• Identify fire equipment, eg, fire blanket signs
• Identify stores or areas where dangerous substances are held, eg, “Danger – compressed gas”
• Direct traffic within a workplace
• Highlight if there are dangerous substances or pipework
• Highlight if there is a risk that has not been avoided or controlled by other means
• Highlight safe conditions, eg, drinking water or first aid box signs
• Highlight machinery hazards, eg, wear hard hats or wear ear defenders
• Highlight specific risks and dangers to clearly warn of the potential hazard as well as identify the necessary steps to avoid it, eg, caution hot surface.
Since the smoke free law came into force, companies are also now required to display a no smoking sign prominently at the entrances of the building to meet the legal requirements. However, the law allows flexibility for the no smoking signs to be designed and displayed in a way that fits the decor of the premises.
Following the introduction of Part Three of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in October 2004, it is a requirement that buildings that do not have accessible escape routes for disabled users must have clearly marked refuge points where disabled persons can wait in safety to be rescued. Failure to comply with these regulations could result in hefty fines.
Employers are also responsible for providing an overview of the safety signs to staff and outlining what they should do if they see a sign. There is also a legal duty for companies to maintain their safety signs and keep up with the legal requirements and changes to relevant legislation. All employers, regardless of size, must also prominently display a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Health and Safety Law poster.
Workplace signs may not be the most captivating of subjects and it is often an area that is neglected but the penalties today for failing to comply with health and safety and other relevant legislation are severe. Employers have a duty of care for themselves and their employees so if you are unsure of what signs are needed, or indeed are available, there are several specialist suppliers of workplace signs and they can provide the correct professional advice including what employers need to do to comply with the law.
• They are required by law to explain all safety signs in the workplace, particularly if it is a high risk or dangerous environment. Most signs will be self-explanatory, however some signs may be specific to an industry or job and may require further explanation
• There is a legal duty for companies to maintain their safety signs
• All text or word signs should be replaced with pictogram signs (with supporting text where necessary)
• Safety signs should be provided where necessary to warn of hazards, to prevent dangerous practices and to indicate safe exit routes and safe practices
Mark Bartlett is the managing director of signage specialists Signbox