Safety Signs Blog

Overcoming Safety Signs Blindness

18th April 2011 | Health and Safety Signs

Posted by David Arnold

Having worked in the safety signs industry for more years than is good for a person, I have come across the phrase ‘Sign blindness’ on numerous occasions. In my experience it invariably tends to be used in one of two ways: Cluster Sign Blindness and Familiarity Sign Blindness. The following examines both ways and considers how a sign installer should bear this in mind when positioning health and safety signs.

Cluster Sign Blindness

The first type of sign blindness is when too many safety signs are installed together. Notably this often happens at the entrance to some major works area within a factory and warehouse. Frequently, over cautious Health and Safety Managers like to cover all bases, bombarding staff and visitors that pass through that entrance with safety messages.

Indeed on carrying out a site survey a few years ago, rather than providing many new signs, much of the visit involved looking at ways of consolidating down existing sign messages into a more concise format.

During the visit, one of my biggest areas of concern was the door that led to the factory shop floor, which displayed the following:

  • High visibility jackets must be worn in this area sign
  • Fire exit keep clear sign
  • Forklifts operating warning sign
  • Protective footwear must be worn mandatory sign
  • Do not climb racking prohibition sign
  • Caution Mind the step sign
  • Head protection must be worn sign

To make some sense of this I first suggested that the three protective workwear (PPE) signs be consolidated into one sign: Head protection, Protective footwear and high vis jackets must be worn. I also suggested that the Do not climb racking be removed. This was done not because it is not a dangerous activity - I just felt with all the other risks around, telling employees not to do something that was common sense was by far the least important message at this critical point of entry.

I should say being made from rigid plastic we were able to reposition the Racking sign in a far more suitable place within the storage area.

In addition to the above, directional signs can also be dangerously clustered. Recently I sat in a meeting where Marketing were asking for all the fire exit signs to be repositioned “up a bit” or “down a bit” so the day-to-day directional wayfinding signs could be positioned there as well. This is always a problem area, as British Standard BS5499 part 4 states fire exits should be positioned separately and on their own, so they can be seen and read at a glance, without the evacuee having to read Ward A, Ward B, Ward C etc first. Whilst I have no problem in lots of day-to-day directional signs being positioned together, fire exits should indeed be as separate from other signs as possible.

Familiarity Sign Blindness

A good example of familiarity sign blindness is the fire door keep shut sign. Every day of someone’s working life they may well be pushing through the same double doors in the corridor that clearly states on both sides of both doors “Fire door keep shut”. However, because they are so familiar with the sign that on a hot summer’s day they may well attempt to wedge open these same doors to allow fresh air around the building. This familiarity sign blindness is not easily combated. However, by being aware of the existence of this type of sign blindness should help the building’s responsible person do something about it, perhaps by reinforcing the sign’s message with some verbal reinforcement. They may also consider refreshing the sign, perhaps by installing a new, different style of sign relaying the same message. In the case of the fire door keep shut sign, this may mean upgrading to an aluminium sign or photoluminescent one.

In conclusion, I would urge any safety sign installer to be aware of the problems of familiarity sign blindness and cluster sign blindness. Firstly remember that signs will lose impact over time. Refreshing the message can only improve comprehension of the message. Secondly, please consider that often with signs less is more. Too many messages clustered together in one place simply waters-down the importance and impact of each one. As a start point think about what is the most important message you wish to convey and work your way down. If the set of messages cannot be read within 5 seconds, then you probably have too many signs displayed in that one position.


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