WARNING: Too many safety signs can be hazardous!

In a recent article the Daily Telegraph highlighted an increasing perception in the general public that the use of safety signs in public spaces has become overzealous. It seems many Health & Safety professionals and Safety Sign manufacturers would agree. “I have often thought that in our industry there are too many signs. The brain can only soak in a certain amount and eventually they become wallpaper.” says Raymond Rapp in a posting on the Institution of Occupation Health & Safety discussion forum.

Against this, there are many good reasons for sensible safety signage warning of genuine hazards. In the book recently published by the Manifesto Club, “Attention Please” there are many images submitted by the public of supposedly 'silly' or inappropriate safety signs or safety measures – most of which are entirely sensible. A barrier around a hole in the road, a “Danger of Death” electrical warning sign on a high voltage electricity pole – what's wrong with these?

There are however moves in the other direction – towards less regulation and less resulting signage. In a number of experiments, like the Ashford ring, roads have been designated as a 'shared space' – based on an idea originally from Holland. All road users are treated equally – cars, bikes and pedestrians tend to be more considerate, they use eye-contact and appropriate speed when negotiating traffic intersections.

If this works for traffic management – maybe it could work in other areas where safety signs are traditionally used to control or moderate behaviour? One of the issues is our current headlong pelt towards an American style litigious society, driven largely by “no-win no-fee” legal action. This means that responsible bodies like Councils, Companies and Local Authorities are not prepared to leave risks 'unidentified' and at personal discretion (A.K.A. common sense) they feel that once brought to their attention, a risk should be highlighted to account for the lowest common denominator – resulting in a large, some times ugly, unmistakeable safety sign or three. As Boris says “Health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people”.

In traffic management it's clearly in everyone's interest to get where they're going quickly and safely – and generally it's clear that safely = quickly – so there's no conflict of interest. The problem with construction site safety, industrial safety or in some cases public safety, is that the restriction or prohibition which is implemented in the interest of common safety, may not appear to be in an individuals immediate interest (e.g. No Hard Hat - No Work) – hence the need for safety signs to reinforce the message.

The problem comes when safety signs are used either for frivolous, irrelevant and arbitrary reasons or without due attention to the actual situation presently occurring. This tends to bring the whole system collectively into disrepute. We've all seen examples: “Caution floor surface may be slippery when wet”, “Caution Uneven surfaces” - on a beach, road work signs left long after the work has been completed, construction site entrances with a profusion of seemingly random messages, the list could go on.

It's up to everyone who promotes, manufactures or uses safety signs to ensure they are designed, manufactured and implemented only where absolutely required, with a relevant, appropriate and considered safety message.

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