Health And Safety Signs And Their Vital Role In The Workplace

Health and safety signs must be quickly and clearly understood. They must instruct, inform, and advise staff and visitors regarding potential health and safety hazards in a workplace. They must be easier and quicker to interpret and understand than verbal or extensive written instructions.

Sign History

Health and safety signs have a long history. A skull and crossbones have been a symbol for poison for over 1,000 years. In Britain during the Middle Ages many tradespeople, including brewers, had to display a sign, often carved on a stone tablet, outside their premises, or risk losing their license.

Safety signs and signage relating to danger became more common during industrialisation and with the invention of the motor car. New signs were introduced as hazards and potentially dangerous substances became more common. Signs were also improved. For example, the ubiquitous green running person fire exit sign has only been with us since the 1980s.

Sign Legislation And Employer Responsibilities

The government enforces standards on the provision and use of safety signs through the Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals Regulations) 1996 (PDF). These regulations apply to all places of work covered by the Health and Safety at work Act 1974.

The Regulations cover various health and safety-related signboards and signs, including fire-related safety signs. They also cover other means of communicating health and safety information. These include illuminated signs, hand signals, acoustic signals like fire alarms, spoken communication and markings on pipework carrying dangerous substances. The regulations also require road traffic signs to be used if a worksite allows access to road vehicles.

The regulations require employers to provide specific safety signs whenever there is a risk that is not avoided or controlled by other means, e.g. machine guards or barriers, and safe systems of work. In deciding where to position signs and what type to use, employers must consider results of risk assessments made under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. A safety sign does not have to be provided where such a sign would not help to reduce risk, or where the risk is not significant.

The regulations require employers to maintain the safety signs which are provided by them, explain unfamiliar signs to their employees and tell them what they need to do when they see a safety sign.

The Regulations do not cover signs and labels used concerning the transport of dangerous goods or the supply of substances, products and equipment.


The regulations state all signs should use graphic symbols or pictograms to convey their message. Supplementary text can be added if the image needs further clarification. The regulations set out the required shape and colours of signs. They also state that pictograms must be as simple as possible and contain only essential details. It is possible to see some signs with pictograms that do not exactly match those shown in the Regulations. A slight variation in the pictograms used is allowed, but they must convey the same meaning.

Types Of Sign

Safety signs are subdivided into categories according to the message they convey. Each category has a specific colour and/or format.

Mandatory Signs (BLUE)

These signs state a specific safety-related behaviour needed to comply with statutory requirements. They are often positioned at entry points to areas where the indicated behaviour is required (e.g. Goggles Must Be Worn).

Signs showing mandatory requirements are usually a blue circle with a pictogram or text in white positioned centrally.

A general mandatory sign comprising a white exclamation mark on a blue circle may be used with a fire safety instructions notice. The 1996 Regulations do not regard the instructions notice as a health and safety sign because it does not include a pictogram. However, they are often required by workplace fire assessments. They list actions that occupants must carry out in the event of a fire and comprise a white text on a blue background in a rectangular format which is more appropriate for the amount of text used than a circular sign.

Prohibition Signs (RED)

These prohibit behaviour likely to increase or cause danger (e.g. No smoking). The sign has a circular red band with a single diagonal line descending from left to right at a 45-degree angle. The background is solid white with imagery showing the issue in black.

Warning Signs (YELLOW/AMBER)

Warning signs make people aware of a nearby hazard or danger, for example, high voltage, a slippery floor or dangerous chemical or radioactive substances.

Most of these signs fall under the previously mentioned Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996 while the Dangerous Substances (Notification and Marking of Sites) Regulations 1990 require others.

The signs comprise a black band in the shape of an equilateral triangle. Within the triangular band, the background should be yellow. A centrally positioned black image must show the type of hazard present.

Fire Safety Signs

Although the 1996 Regulations do not require safety signs to be used where there is not a significant risk to health and safety, certain fire safety signs may have to be displayed under separate legal requirements. Fire safety signs fall into two subtypes:

Emergency Signs (GREEN)

These give information on emergency exits, escape routes, first aid equipment or rescue facilities (e.g. Fire Exit or Eye Wash Station).

They are a green rectangle or square with imagery, or text in white positioned centrally.

In the same way as the 1996 Regulations do not require the use of some UK fire safety signs, they also do not demand the use of some signs related to emergencies. For example, the regulations do not require a PUSH BAR TO OPEN sign on a fire door as it has no standardised pictogram. However, such signs must often be used to comply with building regulations or other UK legislation.

Exit signs should be legible at all times. This means where emergency lighting is necessary to aid escape in the event of a disruption to normal lighting, it should also illuminate exit signs.

Firefighting Signs (RED)

These signs give information on firefighting equipment and are rectangular or square-shaped with a white pictogram on a red background.

Both types of fire safety sign can have appropriately coloured supplementary signs with large white arrows showing the direction to the nearest exit, facility or piece of equipment.

Health and safety signs have a vital role in the workplace. They can help prevent accidents and can be invaluable in emergencies. Ensuring they are appropriate, correctly placed and maintained will help keep staff and visitors safe.

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