After nine years of work in the standards arena, breakthrough developments are now occurring in U.S. and international standards for safety signs. The effect these standards will have to improve safety in our public and work environments will be nothing less than profound. In the next ten years, a global transformation will take place in our visual surroundings that will be both elegant and simple. Office buildings, public spaces, cruise ships, residential high-rise structures, factories, warehouses, oil rigs, sports stadiums, concert halls; literally every public and work environment throughout the world will potentially be built or retrofitted with new international-style safety signage. In addition, the warning labels that now appear on a vast majority of products will also reflect the changes occurring in these standards. The end result will be improved communication of safety-related information and, through this improved communication of hazard awareness, a significant reduction in risk will occur. This paper is intended to give the reader clear insight about these coming changes and the standards that are ushering them in. It will be the safety engineer's challenge to spearhead the implementation of the necessary steps to adopt this new communication technology in the facilities they manage and for the products their companies manufacture.

A Brief History - The Rise to Prominence of ISO Standards for Graphical Symbols

You are sent to China to install a new piece of factory equipment in an automotive plant. On the outside of an enclosure, you see the sign shown in Exhibit 1. You only speak English, the workers in the plant don't speak English and your job is to integrate this new machine into the existing assembly line by the end of the day. You recognize the message might have something to do with safety because the color-coding is somewhat familiar, but you have no idea what the sign is intended to convey. End result: communication failure.

Exhibit 1. Example of a foreign-text safety label. (available in full paper)

Whether you are looking at a foreign text label on a product in the local store or you are in a foreign land surrounded by signs with text in a language you don't understand, the effect is the same; the message is not understood. This is not a far-fetched situation. We live in a time of rapid globalization; a large portion of our manufactured products are marketed worldwide, people travel with increasing ease to every corner of the earth, and our nations' economies are tied together through the integration of our commercial workforces. A universal system for the communication of safety information is needed and that is precisely the topic at hand.

To begin this discussion of a universal system for visual communication, think back over the last 15 years and try to recall if you have ever stepped into a car and not been able to find the windshield wiper switch or turn the headlights on. Probably not.

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