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Safety Signs and the Importance of Training

When I think about safety signs, the first thing I hear in my head is the hit 1970s song “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band, particularly the part that goes, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind.” In our industry, we have a lot of signs, and the truth is that few of them are useful. What is it about signs that helps us, and what is it about signs that hurts us?

Part of my full-time job involves providing expert witness litigation support, so I frequently discuss and relate aspects of the courtroom experience here in these pages. That’s because the purpose of this column is to inform readers in practical language about the realities of safety compliance. And signs have a big role in safety that is very poorly administered.

What Sign?
Here’s an example of what I mean. A few years ago, I worked on a fatality case involving equipment. Based on photographs, there were 147 warning or danger signs on the three pieces of equipment related to the incident. There were three manufacturer operating manuals that showed a total of 212 graphic representations of the warning and danger signs displayed on the equipment. There were 19 workers on the site associated with the incident. Not one worker who was interviewed or deposed could describe any details about the warning and danger signs that were or were not visible to the users of the equipment. What does that mean to us? From the plaintiff’s perspective, it suggests that the employer was a poor trainer that sent out workers who never read the warning signs before operating dangerous equipment.

Five Reasons
That’s not really the case, of course. There are basically five reasons to have signs: instructions for operating; hazard communication; warnings for the uninformed; general prevention of accidents; and reminders for trained persons. For manufacturers, each of the signs they put out is for those five reasons. But even more important for them is the fact that signs are designed to limit manufacturer liability. That’s also why operating and maintenance manuals include page after page of instructions showing the signs and where the signs go. You, the reader, are now likely thinking about all the signs you’ve seen on bucket trucks, digger derricks, tuggers, tensioners, cranes, loaders, dozers, compressors, gas pumps and so forth. You can generally tell what those signs are for and even see them in your memory. That’s because almost every safety sign we see is the product of the work of the 1979 ANSI Z535 committee on safety signs. The ANSI Z535 family of safety sign standards includes six published standards, Z535.1 through Z535.6. ANSI Z535 is the reason why everything related to safety signs – from danger signs to barricade tape – all looks the same. The intention of common appearances is twofold. First, years and years of research have determined the colors and shapes that are most likely to get our attention. Second, if we see a shape or color, it is supposed to ring a bell placed in our left brain by training and/or experience. That ringing bell should cause us to recognize that the sign is for our safety and to look at and read the sign.

Workplace Signs
The signs on vehicles and equipment are one thing. We don’t detail the signs or sign locations that come on equipment. But the signs we place in the work environment are a different story. Those consultants who audit work environments will likely tell you that most operations could stand a review of what signs they have and should have, and whether the signs they use are really doing what we want: preventing hazard-related incidents. One of my favorite audit finds was an open door with two signs on it. One was a NERC-inspired security sign that read, “This door must remain securely locked at all times.” The door was propped open by a cigarette ash can right below the second sign, which read, “State law: No smoking within 25 feet of this doorway.” In this case, the problem was threefold. First, signs are only as effective as the training you do for the people who are affected by them. Second, signs have become so commonplace that they are practically invisible. Third, signs are only as effective as the compliance accountability for those workers affected by them.

Chaucer and Safety
Fourteenth-century author Geoffrey Chaucer was writing about marriage when he put it like this: “Familiarity breeds contempt,” essentially meaning that the more often you see something, the less it affects you. The same is true about offensive conditions. The more you are exposed to them, the less they offend you. When we see something repeatedly in our environment, it becomes invisible unless it triggers a reaction. With signs, the only trigger is a change in the sign or training that creates a trigger response.

About 25 years ago, my office overlooked a covered dock where all the buckets and digger derricks were parked to give them access to the plug-in block heaters in winter. On each piece of equipment, right below the driver’s door handle, was an orange sign asking the driver, “Did you check behind?” It was an accident prevention sign that had effectively lowered the number of backing incidents at the utility. From my vantage point, I could see that few drivers were taking that look behind before they backed out of the parking bay. (Note to readers: Resist the urge to critique our backing safety plan; this was more than two decades ago.) So, we did an experiment. Over one weekend, safety came in and replaced all of the orange stickers with a new red-bordered sticker of the same size and shape. We were not surprised to observe that with all of the commotion at the Monday morning dock, every driver reaching for their door latch stopped and noticed the new sticker. Quite a few of them also stepped from the running board and went to the rear to do the look. This was not a scientific experiment, of course, but it demonstrates the trigger effect that a change in signs has in the work environment.

If you are a safety professional, how much training time have you spent on signs used at your utility? How many workplace audits have you conducted that examined work area signs and compliance? Here is one of my favorite audit issues. Every crane, boom truck and bucket has a weight load limit for the platform, material-handling jib or boom. The signs related to the weight load limits are everywhere. Next time you see one of these operations, ask the operators how much weight they are lifting. I don’t have to guess what you might find. We work in a very static mechanical environment. We pretty much lift the same loads all the time. The weight of a load becomes an assumption. I have had lineworkers honestly tell me that they have not calculated a weight in distribution work for years. Thinking back, I realized I was one of those workers. Algebra, who needs it? Transmission workers calculate more frequently because the consequence of weight in a lift is more readily hazardous. Here’s another example: We label a two-man bucket with a maximum weight load of 600 pounds. One lineman weighs 280 and the other weighs 220. There is an 88-pound coffing hoist on the floor of the bucket, and the ground crew is passing up a dead-end string of eight 8-inch porcelain bells. Right about now, everybody reading this is likely thinking, what about the hydraulic impact driver and tool board? There is nothing unusual or overstated about these examples. They come right from the field. There are many utilities and contractors out there that label their buckets with weight limits. The ones I know about labeled them after a bucket mount failure.

Training workers on the value of safety signs and accountability for following them does make a difference. We can’t train the public regarding safety signs, but we can use standards for placement and types of signs, and we can train workers on the purpose and effect of signs that protect the public.

Consider this: A new substation was built. The engineers used standard guidance for the placement of warning signs installed on the perimeter fence. Using actual approach angles and clear-view distances available to the four sides of the substation, it was decided to place “Danger: High Voltage” signs 5 feet high every 15 feet along the length of the fence. To finish off the environmental aesthetic of the substation, designers settled on a variety of miniature fir trees that would only grow to 10 feet but effectively screened the view of the ugly electrical equipment – and the warning signs. The trees also screened the view of the ladder that a copper thief used to climb the fence. In addition, the trees screened the view of his electrical contact that went undiscovered for days. Ultimately, the purpose of the signs every 15 feet – to warn and protect the public, and to protect the utility – went unrealized. Everybody did their jobs, including the fence builder, the substation mechanics who placed the signs, the engineers who designed their parts of the project, the landscapers and the yard maintenance crew. Yet no one recognized the futility of placing signs that could not be viewed.

I think of how many times the control labels on a tensioner, tugger or digger were illegible to me in the field. I had a pretty good idea of what the levers were for, but I had to ease in to see what was going to happen. You can clutter up the scenery with safety-related signs, but if they can’t be read or recognized, they might as well not even be there. Training and maintenance should have no tolerance for illegible signs. That simple policy doesn’t just ensure the value of a particular sign; the culture of sign maintenance elevates the role and value of safety signs everywhere. Managers, supervisors and safety professionals, take a walk through your workplace for the purpose of a sign audit. See what you have out there. Is it in the right place, and is it the right message? Do our employees know why it’s there and the value of signs?

Safety is no accident.

About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 24 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He can be reached at

Jim Vaughn, CUSP

After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 24 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He can be reached at