Safety Signs Blog

When is a warning sign, not a warning sign?

28th November 2011 | Warning Signs

Posted by Darren Joint

The answer is simple – when it's a prohibition sign. In a recent article on the BBC news site, new controversy has been raised about the appropriate use of safety signs.

The article published last week, discusses the merits and local reactions to “Rock warning signs at Tywyn beach”. In fact the signs employed say “Do not climb on rocks”, which is a prohibition message and feature a symbol with a red crossed though circle. If they had been warning signs, they might have said “warning dangerous rocks” or “caution dangerous rocks” and would have been yellow and black with an exclamation in a triangle.

This may seem like a pedantic viewpoint from a safety sign nut – but actually there's a serious point. The purpose stated in the article, by a representative of the local council, of these safety signs is to warn the public about the danger posed by voids between the rocks and the risk of entrapment during tidal flows in this location. Ok – then why not say that? The over use of signs which prohibit behaviour, without explaining the risk, tend to mean that ALL signs of this type have less impact. Ignore one sign of which you can't see the point – and it's easier to ignore the next one – which may have a very good reason for being there.

In my view it would have been better to warn of the actual & not immediately apparent danger – and since the risk is only high in certain specific situations, let people make their own judgement about the actual risk to them.

“Warning – tidal area, risk of entrapment.” would seem suitably simple, concise and to the point. Since these are clearly custom signs, it would also be possible, if working with a good sign maker to make a combined sign. These types of safety signs combine different types of safety message into one sign – in this case it could make sense to use a warning and a prohibition message.

The main risk of entrapment would seem to be for small children – so my proposal would have been: “Do not allow children to play on these rocks unsupervised” as a prohibition sign, combined with the above warning message. If a risk assessment was originally undertaken, that led to the need for signs in the first place – it should be possible to test this sign against that risk assessment. Since this combined sign should stop small children playing on their own (the behaviour about which the concern was raised) and explain the risk to readers of the sign – it stands the most chance of actually being successful.

Too often signs are used in an attempt to protect against the risk of legal action – rather then properly concentrating on the risk of a dangerous or threatening incident. Obviously all of the above is speculation – we haven't seen the risk assessment, nor the site and it's actual risks – the point is that it's worth spending some time getting the right message across on signs which will presumably be around for some time.

The other complication in this particular situation, is that the signs are located in Wales, hence are required under the Welsh Language Act of 1993, to be provided in both English and Welsh. This makes the sign maker's job more complicated, to ensure that the signs are a sensible overall size and remain relatively unobtrusive in this natural setting. It means that the text of both languages will end up having to be smaller and this will make the any sign less legible from the same distance.


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