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A Look at ANSI Z535 on Safety Signs, Labels, & Messages


Gary Bell’s 25+ years of experience in product safety and liability prevention has been integral in his position as Chair of the ANSI Z535 Accredited Standards Committee (ASC).

In this interview, Bell provides a history of the ANSI Z535 standards series, describes the latest revisions to these standards and discusses the committee’s activities and goals for this year.

What are the role and scope of the ANSI Z535 standards?

These standards provide a uniform and systematic approach for the visual layout of safety signs, labels, tags, barricade tapes and now also safety messages found in instructional materials such as owners’ manuals, assembly instructions, use and care guides, etc. A uniform system provides the best opportunity for maximum recognition and understanding of important safety information.

When it began its work in the late 1970s, the ANSI Z535 ASC found very little graphic consistency between safety signs and labels in use at the time. Different signs or labels that addressed the same hazard could be found in the marketplace, but they looked totally different by virtue of their color, text layout, use of symbols and choice of signal words. These inconsistencies would become a problem in an era when the reliance on “warnings” was increasing. For example, early research showed that just changing the primary color of a safety sign or label from red to yellow would give the impression that the hazard covered by the yellow sign or label was a lesser risk than the exact same sign or label with the red color.

Other research showed that issues like print layout significantly affected readability. For example, text that is centered down the middle of a sign or label (a popular format) is much harder to read than text that follows a typical “justified left-ragged right” print layout. This is not good because safety-related signs and labels must communicate important safety information clearly and often in a time-critical situation.

The standards provide direction on “how” to warn. They do not prescribe “when” to use any particular safety sign, label or instructional message in collateral materials.

What are your responsibilities as Chair of the ANSI Z535 ASC?

The Chair’s job can best be described as a combination of manager, facilitator, diplomat and “cat herder.” Our committee produces six different technical standards. While each has a specific area of focus, they must all harmonize with each other in terms of their content and publication cycle. Six different subcommittees are each responsible for the research and development of one of the technical standards, so keeping those groups coordinated is a key function.

As an ANSI ASC, the membership must address a broad constituency, with no bias toward any particular group. I am fortunate to work with a number of outstanding people who have expertise in a wide range of interests, including consumer product safety, industrial product safety, facility safety/OSHA, human factors and psychology. We also have had input from various government agencies over the years, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission, OSHA, the Federal Highway Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Rural Utilities Service and various military branches. When it comes to the standards’ content, it is definitely a consensus effort. My position only counts as one vote among many.

However, as Chair managing a consensus effort on a topic that can bring such a wide range of focus and opinion, the “diplomacy” role plays large. In every significant issue that arises, there is always a large group of representatives who want to pursue the middle ground, along with those often very vocal individuals who represent their own, sometimes opposing, views. Due process and giving everyone a fair chance to hear all sides must be balanced with the need to decide on a course of action and to move on.

How long has the ANSI Z535 standards series been available and what does it encompass?

The initial editions of the ANSI Z535 series of standards were first available in 1992. At that time, the series had five different standards, each with a specific focus area. We have just added a sixth standard.

We divide our standards into two groups. The “foundation standards” cover the basic issues of colors and symbols, while the “application standards” describe how to apply our uniform safety alerting system in specific types of applications. These two standards apply to all of the “application standards.”

The “foundation standards” are as follows:

ANSI Z535.1—Standard for Safety Colors. This standard gives the precise color specifications for our defined safety colors. It is most important for those who print or manufacture signs, labels and other graphics that depict safety information. (A Safety Color Chart is also available as a supplement to the standard. It accurately depicts the specified safety colors and provides the Pantone and/or ink color formulation for those colors.)

ANSI Z535.3—Criteria for Safety Symbols. This standard provides guidelines on how to design safety symbols and pictorials, and most importantly, how to test those symbols and pictorials to assure that they clearly communicate their intended message.

The “application standards” are as follows:

ANSI Z535.2—Environmental and Facility Safety Signs. This standard addresses signs and labels used in the workplace as well as in public spaces.

ANSI Z535.4—Product Safety Signs and Labels. This standard focuses on signs and labels used for product safety and liability prevention.

ANSI Z535.5—Safety Tags and Barricade Tapes for Temporary Hazards. Safety tags in particular can be used in the workplace, public spaces and in product safety applications. This standard provides specific guidance on the construction and use of safety tags and barricade tapes.

ANSI Z535.6—Product Safety Information in Product Manuals, Instructions and Other Collateral Materials. Our newest standard, it explains how to present safety information in printed materials.

What industry events or issues led to the development of the ANSI Z535 standards series?

The ANSI Z535 standards have a rich history. In fact, one of our standards, ANSI Z535.1, is a descendant of an “American War Standard” developed in the 1940s. Our standards fundamentally deal with communication, and they specifically address how to communicate important safety-related information. Changes in technology and culture profoundly affect human communication. Our standards have evolved in a way that reflects these changes. In that regard, two distinct episodes drove these standards to prominence.

In the early 1970s, the Occupational Safety and Health Act incorporated the ANSI Z53 Standard on Safety Colors and the ANSI Z35 Standard on Safety Signs into its requirements. This was a first but a somewhat limited introduction to the concept that safety signs and labels play an important role in safety management. (The two committees responsible for the development of those standards merged in 1979 to become the present ANSI Z535 Committee.)

In the period following the introduction of OSHA, a flurry of developments emerged involving the country’s social awareness, regulatory environment and legal climate. These intended to protect the consumer and physical environment and to better assure the “right to know” concerning hazardous materials and conditions. In particular, product liability tort law expanded, developed rapidly and became a very significant issue. The theory referred to as “the duty to warn” emerged from the broad area of product liability tort law. In addition to the more traditional theories, which held that a manufacturer could be held liable for damages caused by design defects or manufacturing defects, the “duty to warn” theory held that there was a potential cause of action when “adequate warnings” were not provided. Such warnings were necessary to alert the product purchaser/consumer concerning hazards that may exist during the reasonably foreseeable use and misuse of the product.

The committee came to the realization that the “duty to warn” theory created new and different demands for safety signs and labels. At the same time, the committee also realized that the importance of creating a uniform visual system also required similarities in the way safety messages were presented, regardless of whether they appeared in the workplace or on a product. For a time, the committee operated on the idea that one standard could serve all. However, the essential differences ultimately led to the development of two distinct standards—ANSI Z535.2 for workplace applications and ANSI Z535.4 for product safety applications.

The “duty to warn” issue provided the impetus for the most significant growth and interest in the ANSI Z535 standards. Sales of the ANSI Z535.4 standard have historically eclipsed the sales of all other Z535 standards.

The ANSI Z535 ASC is currently finalizing revisions to the standards. How will the revised standards differ from the previous versions? What new requirements, recommendations or features will they include?

We try to be very careful about how we “evolve” the standards. We build upon existing requirements by deleting things that are no longer relevant and by adding things that will make application of the standards clearer. A person who has used the standards in the past will not have to completely change their signs and labels because we decided to “change the look.”

Perhaps the most exciting change is the addition of a new informative annex that will appear in ANSI Z535.2, .4, .5 and .6. This annex is titled “Risk Estimation and Signal Word Selection.” One of the common elements between our standards is the definition and use of specific signal words—Danger, Warning, Caution and Notice. Using these terms consistently is key in a uniform safety alerting system.

By consistently using specific signal words, along with a consistent use of color and format, the degree of risk is instantly recognized. For example, whenever a person sees a red “danger,” regardless of whether it is on a product, in the workplace or on a sign, label or tag, there will be a consistent understanding that the particular hazard is severe and capable of immediately causing death or severe injury. The same objective holds true for the other signal words and their definitions.

In the past, we tried to rely on a simple, one-sentence definition to define the correct application of these signal words. These definitions were very nuanced, and the debate about how to best phrase them carried on for a while. During this revision cycle, the committee completely changed its approach and decided that rather than try to distill these definitions down to a cleverly written single sentence, the users of our standards might be better served if they were taken through the risk analysis process in a step-by-step fashion using simple flowcharts and matrices. We hope that this process will add a better degree of understanding and uniformity.

The ANSI Z535 ASC has also developed a new standard that, for the first time, will specifically address how to convey important safety information in printed materials such as assembly instructions, repair manuals and use-and-care booklets. How do you believe this new standard will improve injury and accident rates?

Look under the hood of a classic car from the 1950s or 1960s and then look under the hood of a car available today. In the last 50 years, our society has changed from one in which some degree of mechanical aptitude, a basic knowledge of electric circuits and a little bit of training could help someone work with most of the technology encountered in everyday life to one in which you need an extensive instruction manual just to operate the sound systems in new cars.

Along with increasing technological complexity, the social and legal demands for “full disclosure” of safety information have made printed instructions an essential part of most consumer products, industrial equipment and workplace environments. The ANSI Z535 standards are based on principles that should help the widest possible audience better recognize and understand the important safety information conveyed in printed instructions in addition to safety signs and labels.

What challenges did the ANSI Z535 ASC face during the revision process and during the development of the new standard?

Development of the new ANSI Z535.6 standard started on a very positive note because it addressed an area where there was a strong sense of need. Perhaps the biggest challenge was assessing the approaches already in use, determining which ones seemed to offer the best approaches and incorporating and possibly improving them. The subcommittee reviewed existing standards, regulations and over one hundred different product manuals.

Existing standards and regulations all seemed clear about the need for certain instructions as well as the topics that needed to be addressed. However, the subcommittee found that none of them really considered the issues of format, writing style and location in the document in a way that could have served as a template for the standard. Much like when we first developed the other standards, we needed to rely on the committee’s expertise and on the findings of proprietary research projects to help develop this standard from scratch.

Does the ANSI Z535 ASC foresee any new areas in which the revised standards will be applied?

Our standards have already been applied in the widest possible array of applications that I can think of, including in the workplace, on many different products and in forms that vary from signs and labels to tags, barricade tapes and now instruction books. We want more people to become aware of the standards and to apply them.

When does the ANSI Z535 ASC expect the revised standards to be published, and how will the committee promote them to facilities and to safety, health and environmental (SH&E) professionals?

The new ANSI Z535.6 standard is available for purchase through Global Engineering Documents. The other standards are in their final review stages. I am optimistic that they will be available before mid-year. We take care in the way we evolve our standards. Anyone currently following the 2002 editions of the existing standards is on a very good course for addressing the requirements covered in the 2007 versions.

In terms of promotion, many of our committee members represent trade associations, are active on other standards committees and are often given the opportunity to make presentations at seminars and technical meetings. In the near future, we also plan to participate in the OSHA Alliance Program.

How is the ANSI Z535 ASC working to address signs and symbols used in multi-language workplaces?

From its beginnings, one of the important design considerations we have addressed in our committee has been how to effectively communicate safety information in a diverse cultural setting. We address not only multi-lingual environments, but also situations in which there are literacy problems. Our standards specifically address how to properly format multi-lingual safety signs, labels and instructional messages as well as how to design and evaluate symbols that can be used for “wordless” communication. Our standards incorporate and prescribe the use of specific safety colors as an additional wordless way to help communicate the relative severity and probability of safety issues.

How has the ANSI Z535 ASC integrated the need for signs and symbols into the traditional hierarchy of safety engineering? Do you feel that instead of first “engineering out” hazards or exposures, too many facilities rely on signs and symbols to warn people of these hazards and exposures? Is this hierarchy concept included in the ANSI Z535 standards series? Several standards committees, such as the Z359 Committee on Fall Arrest and Fall Protection, are currently working with ASSE (as the Secretariat) to address this very issue.

This is very important. In a simpler world, the traditional hierarchy that you refer to should be the framework against which the use of safety signs and labels is applied. However, in our society, the role of warnings and instructions is not just affected by engineering principles, but also by our social mores and expectations, which manifest in our legal, legislative and consensus standard development systems. In the nearly 30 years I have been involved in this area, our cultural expectations have continually increased regarding such things as “zero-defects” and full disclosure of information about potential risks.

The traditional design hierarchy calls for a judicious use of “warnings” only after first attempting to either design out or guard against reasonably foreseeable risks. In contrast, those higher societal expectations have driven a “full-court press” type of approach. In addition to addressing the issue by design or guarding, the use of a safety sign, label or safety instruction is now typically expected “just in case.” It is easy to say that there are many unneeded and irrelevant safety signs or labels in use today. While I wish that were not the case, the fact is that if you carefully investigate the reason for the labels, there is usually some “history “ behind their use.
As a committee, we do not get into the prescription of when a safety sign, label or instructional message must be used. Those decisions are driven by corporate philosophy, field failure/warranty experience, litigation experience, industry standards, regulatory directives and the traditional hierarchy. If it is ultimately determined that a safety sign, label or instructional message is necessary, our standards provide guidance on how to maximize their recognition and readability. As a metaphor, we are like parachute makers. We do not make the decision about when to jump out of the airplane. However, once that decision is made, it is our responsibility to provide a product that provides the intended safe landing.

Much debate has surrounded signage, stairway markings, lighting and placards used in buildings to assist in emergency rescue and evacuation. What role is the ANSI Z535 ASC playing in this debate? How is the committee working with NFPA and ASTM, which also have interest in these issues?

The committee has not been directly approached about this issue. This is not necessarily an unusual case. In addition to the ANSI Z535 committee, I am also involved in several product safety-related standards committees for specific industries and types of products. Whether or not a specific product needs some type of “warning label” is a typical point of discussion. Those discussions usually involve representatives of affected manufacturers, consumer interest groups and government regulatory agencies but not our committee. After those entities decide whether a safety sign, label or instructional message is necessary, then the ANSI Z535 standards should be used to determine how to design it for maximum recognition and understanding.

How can SH&E professionals best incorporate the ANSI Z535 standards series into their safety practices?

When situations arise in which there is a need for a safety sign, label or instructional message, the ANSI Z535 standards should always be used for determining their proper visual layout, including such factors as the use of proper signal words, colors, print layout and language style. In many cases, safety signs, labels and tags are available for purchase. Before purchase, SH&E professionals should make sure that the item follows the ANSI Z535 format. They should also ensure that the signal word and color combination used on the sign are in agreement with the level of risk in the particular safety situation.

What are the ANSI Z535 ASC’s plans for 2007?

I once heard someone ask the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade manager, “When does Macy’s start getting ready for the next parade?” The answer was, “As soon as they tear down and clean up the current parade.” It is pretty much the same with us. Our primary focus for this year is to get all remaining standards published as soon as possible. Then we will continue to evolve our standards.

We operate on a four-to-six year revision cycle. (Prior editions were published in 1992, 1998 and 2002.) In the first part of that cycle, the committee will consider what needs to be improved, updated or changed. In each of our standards, we have a form for proposals. Anyone can submit a proposal to the committee regarding changes to the standards or a new idea. Much of what we do to change and update the standards comes as a direct result of these proposals.

The second half of the cycle mostly involves revising the standards and then sending them out to the committee and the general public for review and comment. This part of the process takes time, and it must be done carefully to meet ANSI’s requirements for consensus and due process.


Gary Bell is the Product Safety Manager for the Sauder Woodworking Company in Archbold, Ohio. He began his career in the quality assurance field. The focus of his career activities shifted to product safety and liability prevention, where he now has over 25 years of experience.

Bell has developed and implemented policies and procedures for product safety and liability prevention for manufacturers of consumer, industrial and medical products. Other primary responsibilities have included providing legal support and expert testimony, managing product testing and reliability programs, serving as the corporate representative for regulatory affairs and participating in product safety-related trade associations and consensus standards development activities.

In addition to serving as Chair of the ANSI Z535 ASC, he also serves as Chair of the ANSI/SOHO S6.5 Committee on testing for small office/home office furniture. He is a member of two Underwriters Laboratories Standard Technical Panels for standards addressing furniture products (ANSI/UL 1678 and UL 962), ASTM Subcommittee F15.42 on Furniture Tipover and the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association’s Engineering Standards Committee. Previously, he was a member of the National Fire Protection Association Committee on Finishing Processes, and he served on the Management Boards for the Product Safety Management Academy and the National Spray Equipment Manufacturers Association.

Bell is a Certified Quality Engineer, a Certified Product Safety Manager (Executive Level) and a Certified Safety Specialist. He holds a bachelor degree from Bowling Green State University and a master degree from the University of Arkansas.