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6 Safety Sign Errors and Violations to Avoid

By Karoly Ban Matei | Reviewed by Andrew McKenzie, CRSPCheckmark
Published: February 22, 2023
Key Takeaways

Safety signs should be related to a specific hazard, easy to see, and communicate their message clearly.

Caption: Warning sign posted on fence Source: Bargais / iStock

Safety signs are ubiquitous in the workplace. And no matter their shape, size, or color, they all serve the same fundamental purpose: communicating information that can protect workers from hazards.

The effectiveness of a sign depends on employees acknowledging and understanding the meaning it conveys. Because of this, they can't simply be selected and posted haphazardly. There are right and wrong ways of adding a safety sign to the work environment.

Workplace safety signs are required under Canadian and American legislation.


Many Canadian provinces mention safety signs as part of their respective OHS Code and the subject is covered in the CAN/CSA-Z321-96 standard for Signs and Symbols for the Workplace. However, there is minimal direction regarding the size, color, material, and other attributes of safety signs.

OSHA provides more clarity on the matter. Their 1926.200 standard is dedicated exclusively to Signs, Signals, and Barricades. It provides guidelines for when, where, and how safety signs should be affixed. Even more guidance can be found in standard 1910.145, "Specifications for accident prevention signs and tags."

There are a number of safety violations an employer can commit related to safety signage. In this article, we'll go over the major ones you need to avoid to ensure that you remain in compliance with these two standards and get the most out of the signs in your workplace.

Posting Unnecessary Signs

OSHA standard 1926.200 stipulates that safety signs must be “visible at all times when work is being performed, and shall be removed or covered promptly when the hazards no longer exist.”

In other words, the criteria for posting a sign is the presence of the hazard referenced by the sign. That much is common sense - if workers are at risk, there should be a sign reminding them to take the steps needed to keep themselves safe.

Less obvious is the requirement to take down a sign that has outlived its utility. Once the hazard no longer exists, any sign related to it should be removed.

This also shows that it's a bad idea to install safety signs "just in case." Unless an actual hazard has been identified, adding a sign simply clutters the work environment with unnecessary information that could draw attention away from signs that signal current and real hazards.

What about "awareness raising" safety signs that are not required by law but are very common in some industries? Signs that track the number of days since the last injury or feature a slogan like "Think about the people waiting for you at home." Is posting such a sign a violation, since it doesn't convey information about an identified hazard?

I'm not aware of anyone ever being written up for posting a sign like this, so it may be a gray area. In my opinion, however, they mainly put pressure and guilt on employees for suffering injuries or being involved in an incident. From both a moral and legal perspective, then, I would recommend not displaying these types of signs in the workplace.


Choosing the Wrong Placement

For a safety sign to be effective, it needs to be in the right location. It should be close enough that workers can see it clearly. At the same time, it should be distant enough that employees have time to read the sign and follow its directions before finding themselves in harm's way.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing the placement for a safety sign:

  • The signal word (Warning, Caution, or Danger) should be readable from at least 5 feet away.
  • The sign should be placed in a location where it will be easily noticed. Placing a sign 15 feet from the floor might not be adequate, since employees won't see it unless they look up.
    • If the hazard is 15 feet off the ground, the sign should be at eye level with an arrow pointing up and wording indicating the elevation of the hazard.
  • If placing the sign on a fence by a gate, it is recommended the sign be installed on the right side of the gate (since it is customary to enter on the right side and exist on the left, that is where we tend to look).
  • A safety sign should not be placed in a poorly lit area. If necessary, add additional lighting or reflective materials to ensure the safety sign does not go unnoticed.
    • It might be a good idea to have photoluminescent or reflective signs for essential equipment (fire extinguishers, first aid kits, AEDs) in poorly lit areas or to help identify them in the dark. While this is good practice, no part of the legislation requires this (with the exception of exit signs, which must light up in the event of a power outage).
  • The sign should not be obstructed by walls, machinery, equipment, or other obstacles.
  • Likewise, the sign should not obstruct the view of the hazard it is cautioning against (or other hazards, for that matter).

(Learn more in Sign Blindness Is Real - Here's What You Can Do About It)

Improper Sign Design

Before buying or printing a safety sign, review the regulation and standards to ensure that its design is appropriate. Safety signs have to follow the direction set in one of the following standards:

  • OSHA 1910.145
  • ANSI Z53.1-1967, Table 1, "Fundamental Specification of Safety Colors for CIE Standard Source C”
  • ANSI Z535.1-2006 (R2011), Table 1, "Specification of the Safety Colors for CIE Illuminate C and the CIE 1931"
  • CAN/CSA-Z321-96

Color and Signal Word

Choosing the wrong color scheme or wording for certain safety signs can result in them being considered non-compliant under the legislation. Here is a list of colors required for specific signal words, according to OSHA 1910.145:

  • Danger signs are reserved for serious immediate threats that could result in sever injury or death. The color scheme for these signs is a combination of red, black, and white with the word DANGER across the top.
  • Warning signs indicate moderate risk levels that could lead to serious injuries or death, such as sharp edges, equipment, or roadwork. The word WARNING should be typed on the top panel of the sign on an orange background.
  • Caution signs are used to denote less hazardous situations, with minor to moderate risk of injury. The background of these signs is yellow, with a black upper panel with the word CAUTION typed on it. These signs can also have a graphic representation of the hazard or the controls.
  • Biological hazard signs have fluorescent orange or red-orange coloring with contrasting text.

Other colors can be used on workplace signs that don't fit these situations. Blue is used for information signs, green is used for other safety signs (such as the location of first aid kits), and magenta or purple on yellow is used for radiation hazards.

Character Size

The words on the sign should be typed with the right character size. Specifically, the words should be big enough to be read from a distance or in poor lighting conditions.

Inadequate Wording

The wording in the body of a safety sign has to be clear and concise. Employees must be able to quickly and read it easily and grasp its meaning immediately.

To accomplish this, the message itself must be simple and straightforward. Stick to language that respects the varying levels of literacy among the workers. Avoid sophisticated or technical words that might not be recognizable to everyone.

The wording on a safety sign should indicate:

  • The nature of the hazard
  • The consequences of coming in contact with the hazard
  • What the employee should do to protect themselves from the hazard

For the sake of clarity, the sign should indicate what a worker should do, not what they should not do. This is because there is typically one desirable behavior, but multiple undesirable behaviors. For instance, "stay three feet away from equipment when in operation" is a much clearer message than "don't get too close to the equipment."

Using the Wrong Sign Materials

OSHA 1910.145(d)(1) does not provide any direction regarding the materials to be used in the construction of safety signs. But it does stipulate that the safety signs may not create additional hazard to people coming in contact with them:

“All signs shall be furnished with rounded or blunt corners and shall be free from sharp edges, burrs, splinters, or other sharp projections. The ends or heads of bolts or other fastening devices shall be located in such a way that they do not constitute a hazard.”

So while the hazards presented by the safety sign’s corners or mounting might constitute an OSHA violation, the type of material itself should be based primarily on conditions that could wear down or damage the sign. Depending on its location, it may need to be able to withstand rain, abrasion, or intense heat. The only consequence for getting this wrong, however, is the cost of replacing it with a more adequate sign.

Signs related to hazards that are always present should be permanent and, as such, made of resistant materials like metal, plastic, or self-adhesive vinyl. Temporary signs can be far more fragile. A printed sign taped to the wall or inserted in a plastic sleeve might be sufficient for a hazards presented by renovations that last only a day.

(Find out more in How to Choose the Right Sign Material)

Not Training Workers on How to Read Safety Signs

Safety professionals are so accustomed to safety signs in the workplace that they might assume that everyone will understand and abide by them. But to young workers or workers new to the industry, the meaning of those signs might not be so obvious.

Linguistic and literacy barriers can also make it difficult for some employees to decipher the meaning of workplace signs. And workers who struggle to understand these signs will not always feel comfortable asking for clarifications.

Because of this, employees should receive training regarding the safety signs deployed in the workplace. That training should ensure that everyone is comfortable with the meaning of each sign and knows the precautions it communicates.

If there is a significant language barrier in the workplace, consider posting signs in the primary language spoken by the workers. Graphic representations can also make signs easier to understand.


Safety signs fall under OSHA regulations. As such, ignoring the guidelines for when to install a sign, which type of sign to use, and what color scheme to follow will result in a safety violation, which may come with corresponding fines.

Beyond these critical details, there are other aspects of safety signs that are not regulated but can nevertheless affect their effectiveness. Before purchasing and installing safety signs, assess your workplace and take account of all the factors that might stand in the way of making your those signs visible, intelligible, and efficient.


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Written by Karoly Ban Matei | HR and Safety Manager

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Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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