When I was asked to write this article, the somewhat benign subject of signage is not what really tickled my fancy (not to decry it of course!). I am more than aware of the standard HSE approach but let’s be honest, that’s not exactly what thriller novels are written about!
But then, when I was dropping my 16-year-old girls to the airport to take what would be thankfully a very uneventful flight back home, I said something that struck me. One of my daughters asked, “How will we know where to go?” my simple answer was “follow the signs!”.
Only then did I internally realise that the subject of signage was far from benign; in fact it takes planning, effort, design and most importantly the understanding of human nature.
I ensured that my girls were safely deposited and, on the drive back home, I could not shake that thought that I had done a disservice to signage all of these years.
So, I shall now attempt to outline some of the intricacies of this, rather amazing subject. Some of the challenges that we have in safety signage and perhaps what we can learn from other industries that rely on signage to transmit their message.
How many is too many?
I presently live in Cairo and one of the first things that any visitor notices is the amount of advertising signage we have on the major roads. The passenger is immediately bombarded with signs and advertising for villas on the North Coast to mobile phones. Now these are not subtle, these are 4-metre by 10-metre billboards! And they are on nearly every major highway!
Now of course this raises an interesting question – can you have too many signs? Is your message being diffused by the clutter of other signs?
The answer that I suggest is YES! One becomes numb to them. To such an extent that they are nothing more than noise.
Now I suppose that our friends in the advertising industry may not like this answer, which is understandable. But when it comes to safety signs, signs that have a sole purpose to warn the employee (or the public!) of safe actions or inactions to take to keep them from harm, then I would dare to say that less is more!
As part of the research for this article I found this little snippet:
“When advertising posters are made, the most important thing is to transmit a message that can be received by people, in a way that cannot be rejected. Getting a positive and immediate reaction is the main approach, which must be based on solving a problem or simply satisfying a need.”1
How many of us have erected a massive billboard at the entrance to projects stating the safety rules? A lot of us I am sure.
“is your message being diffused by the clutter of other signs?”
Now, how many of us have asked “is anyone reading this?” or, “does this help us become a safe project/site/facility?”. Taking the above quote: have we transmitted our message that cannot be rejected, and have we had a positive and immediate reaction?
The answer to this question is often, ‘No’ or ‘We don’t know’.
Now, there are laws in many countries that state that you should post the safety requirements of your site to employees. Compliance is one of our roles, so up goes the sign. Now I am all for compliance, but I much prefer simple and effective solutions to protect our employees. If it does nothing to achieve this, then my fandom wanes somewhat.
Those who know me may tell you that I am passionate about looking at other industries to gain knowledge and best practice. Reading around a subject is key, for much is not really new. Logistics problem on site, look how Amazon do it, team building issues, check out the New Zealand All Blacks.
The effectiveness of signage
The effectiveness of signage? Well, let’s take a peek in to the advertising industry! Just a peek, promise!
According to Market Evolution2 (to be clear I have no affiliation to them in any way) to measure the effectiveness you need to do the following:
- Clarify your goals
- Set-up data collection and analysis capabilities
- Measure your advertisements reach
- Uncover your effective frequency
- Identify touchpoints that need optimisation
- Take a closer look at your media mix
- Link campaign outcomes to revenue
Now all of that list sounds great but let’s examine each in detail and I will also lend my thoughts on how we, as HSE professionals, can achieve some of these.
“distraction is one of the things we all battle with daily”
Clarify your goals
Defining what “advertising effectiveness” means to your team. What are we trying to achieve? Let’s not rush this process and be sure to involve our key stakeholders.
Goals could include:
- “100% of staff PPE adherence”
- “10% raise in those who wear safety goggles at site”
- “25% reduction in housekeeping observations”
The choice is yours.
Set up data collection and analysis capabilities
Before we do anything make sure you have the data and processes you need to measure progress to your goal. You need defined methods for collecting and maintaining high-quality data to track effectiveness over time.
Now this can get very technical, very quickly. But for the sake of many of us I would look at keeping it simple. Baseline observation data before and after signage placement, for example. Employee interviews can be a challenge, but with the advent of so much mobile technology amongst our teams this could be effective. For those on major projects with high profiles then perhaps budget is already allocated for outside agencies, and this can also be utilised – lucky ducks!
Measure your advertisements reach
Reach is simply how many people will see your sign. It would be ideal to have some key information about the staff and what motivates them to take action.
For us this might not be that easy. One can never presume that everyone will “see” the sign. Distraction is one of the things we all battle with daily, it’s a human thing. But we can count how many staff walk past a sign, or see it in the canteen etc.
Making sure you have the capabilities to measure how many people saw it, and which actions they took after the fact is key.
Uncover your effective frequency
Effective frequency describes how many times a consumer needs to see the same (or similar) advertisement before they internalise the message and, hopefully, take action.
This goes directly to my first point – striking the balance between over and underexposing your audience. Finding the right mix is key.
Identify touchpoints that need optimisation
While you are monitoring this the team needs to keep a close eye on the performance of the advertising. For example, if you want to increase conversions but a certain touchpoint isn’t having a clear impact, changes will be necessary.
Keep a track of these changes and why they were taken. This will help in the future signage placement and messaging.
Take a closer look at your media mix
A lot of us forget that its 2022! The range of media channels available to our staff is much more than previously. You need to be able to understand how each channel works to drive your message.
By choosing channels that work together smoothly for your target audience, you can drive better results.
Link campaign outcomes to revenue
Now I hate talking about money but it’s a reality of life. If we can link the effectiveness of our signage to a reduction in injury rate or hazards present, and thus to a reduction in cost, then our higher ups and accountants will be very happy!
That’s all-good and great when talking about our large signage and campaigns, but what about when it comes to our “standard” health and safety signage?
So, another question for you; how many of us have seen an electrical cabinet covered in safety signs from “PTW Required”, “De-metal to Enter”, “Electrical Hazard” and the list goes on? Now, to be clear, all of these signs may be valid, but all of this just becomes noise to the employee (and the electrical cabinet looks like a patchwork of confusing information).
What we do when we “over sign” a piece of equipment or workplace can actually lead to our employees being confused as to what action to take or actually ignoring them completely.
Standards for signage
ISO 3864-1: 2011 is the main international standard for safety signs and signals and in its introduction clearly states:
“There is a need to standardise a system of giving safety information that relies as little as possible on the use of words to achieve understanding.”
For those of us on multiple language sites this is a clear obvious benefit, although we still need to train our staff in these languages, once they are, the understanding of the workforce could be universal.
It goes on:
“Lack of standardisation may lead to confusion and the risk of accidents.”
“The use of standardised safety signs does not replace proper work methods, instructions and accident prevention training or measures. Education is an essential part of any system that provides safety information.”
The standard also has some great information on the size of signs, the distance factors and size selection but I shall not be delving into this during
this article. It is, however, invaluable information for those thinking of upgrading or examining their workplace signage and I would wholly recommend it.
Going back to the third quotation regarding proper work methods, instructions, training, and measures. It is clear that our signage is not the last line of defense, a post held for years by our trusty PPE, but a part of a larger accident prevention programme.
It is not a standalone. It is not a golden bullet. It is integral to our success but only if thought about in a holistic way as part of our programmes.
Further, it can be abused. If we allow lack of standardisation and over or under use throughout our work areas then instead of helping protect our staff, we could be putting them in danger, or at least confusion.
So who’s responsible?
Finally, I wish to briefly discuss the safety professional and our role.
Many years ago, I used to say, “Give me a laptop, a printer and a laminator and I will be able to do the signage”. Now back then this may have been true, but we have, or should have, moved on.
Like PPE, signage is not the sole responsibility of the safety professional. Our work crews, site field/shop floor leadership, management, procurement, and suppliers all have a hand in ensuring that new hazards are identified and signposted, with our guidance, and that existing signage is maintained to appropriate standards.
Manufacturers in particular have a very large role when supplying machinery to our facilities. All signs should be in place and meet appropriate standards.
The planning of signage schemes throughout a facility should require the input from all of the above to ensure that not only the appropriate signage is in place but also that it reaches the audience that requires the information in a clear and effective way.
“signage is not the simple slap-it-on subject that it used to be”
Get out your scrapers and remove all the old signs off that electrical box (once you have something to replace it with of course!).
In conclusion, signage is not the simple slap-it-on subject that it used to be. It requires thought and understanding of both your facility, your hazards, and your workforce. It is an element of a complete accident prevention programme that requires training and communication and is not stand alone. Further, if (and hopefully when) we are tasked with campaigns or the obligatory “Site Safety Sign” we should be thinking of what impact we are having on those that need that information, and how effective it is in passing on that message.
Let’s not also forget one thing. When we see an employee ignoring a sign (which can be a daily occurrence) we should ask them “why?”. This positive level of engagement with the actual people at risk (or putting themselves at risk) remains for me at least, the best tool for understanding people’s motivation, and as such, designing a workplace which suits and rewards them for keeping safe. Signing off now!