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November 9, 2009

Training with Real-Life Examples Improves Safety Sign Effectiveness

More than 5,000 workplace fatalities were reported in the U.S. in 2008, and more than 1 million injuries and illnesses occur annually. These numbers point to the continued importance of workplace safety efforts. Creating and maintaining a safe work environment requires:
1) Understanding the benefits of a safe work environment
2) Addressing workplace issues, and
3) Cultivating a culture that promotes safety

Clearly, communication is the common thread among all three.

How can you communicate effectively in the workplace? Start by posting safety signs.

Prominent safety signs that list safety rules and regulations and identify workplace hazards are among the most cost-effective safety tools. In fact, senior financial executives estimate that each $1 invested in injury prevention returns $2 or more in bottom-line benefits.1

But even with safety signs posted, workers continue to suffer injuries. Did you ever wonder why? Cognitive researchers and other experts have developed some possible explanations. First, signs can be improperly placed or poorly designed. If they can’t be seen or understood, they can’t help. Second, warning signs can become “overly familiar” so they are no longer noticed or thought about. Third, workers often consider other people to be more vulnerable to a hazard than they are themselves. Fourth, workers may simply choose to practice risky behavior. And finally, warning signs may simply be more effective as reminders of a known hazard, rather than as a way to educate workers about unknown hazards.2,3

So how do you maximize the effectiveness of safety signs in your workplace? In a word: communication.

A sign presenting a warning message is only one part of the communication equation. Your workers must understand what the warning means, be able recall it quickly and realize that it applies to them. Ideally, workers will also plan to follow posted safety messages and feel some control over their own safety. Fortunately, simple training can help accomplish all these goals. Especially effective is training that includes real-world accident scenarios that illustrate the hazard, the required or prohibited actions and the possible consequences of failure to comply.2

If you get creative, you can find memorable ways to safely demonstrate to workers what could happen to them if they don’t follow posted safety signs. For example, at The Book of Odds website you can find the odds of death from all kinds of risks. So before someone asks what the odds are of being injured or killed, you can tell them. The site has an entire category on Accidents & Deaths, and a sub-section on Workplace Accidents. At another site,, students and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University let you compare mortality risks by gender, age, cause of death and geographic region.

Now that you’re thinking about safety communication, why not conduct a safety sign audit at your workplace? Look for out-of-date, damaged or missing safety signs; Identify new locations where warnings and notices could improve worker safety; Check fire exits, shipping/receiving areas, PPE reminders, machine and process areas, storage areas, restricted areas and all areas where chemicals are used. Then take a look outside your building. Would additional parking lot or fire control signs improve safety on your property?

You’ll probably be surprised how many additional messages you can identify. When you do, browse to to search and shop from more than 38,000 safety signs and labels, including OSHA, ANSI and custom formats.

And when your signs are delivered, don’t just post them and expect workers to read and follow them. By illustrating what the signs mean and what can happen if they are ignored, you’ll help workers better understand and recall your safety messages. Remember, the key to workplace safety is communication, and signs communicate safety.

David Anderson
ComplianceSigns, Inc.

1 2005 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, Chief Financial Officer Survey.
2 From Research to Reality, Winter 2009.
3 A. Adams, S. Bochner, L. Bilik. Applied Ergonomics, Aug. 1998.

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