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at the workplace

South African regulations made under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993 as well as by-laws made under the Fire Brigade Services Act, 1987 require employers to provide and maintain safety signs where there is significant risk to health and safety. All workplaces, and public places are covered. Crucial in any work environment, the purpose is to prevent injury and ensure staff and visitors are well aware of the possible dangers and hazards ahead in certain situations and/or environments.

In simple terms, the OHS Act places a legal obligation on employers to find out what could go wrong and then make sure it doesn't. This means that appropriate signs must be used throughout the workplace. Without signs, many employees would lack the necessary direction in times of crisis, and employers might find themselves in significant legal difficulties if any accidents were to arise as a result.

The use of geometrical shapes, colours and pictorial symbols, complying with SANS 1186-1 fulfils the requirement by conveying safety messages at a glance.

The system, which is based on international standards, is briefly described as follows:

Informative, Fire Fighting: square in shape with a white background and red border. The symbol must be in red and placed in the centre of the sign. Typical examples of such signs are the location arrow, fire extinguisher, fire hose, etc.
Informative, General: square in shape with a green background and white symbol centrally placed. Typical examples of such signs are those for first aid equipment, general direction arrows. direction to escape route, etc.
Mandatory Sign: round in shape with a blue background, with the symbol placed centrally and in white. Typical examples of such signs are those advising that certain pieces of protective clothing must be worn (eg goggles, respiratory protection, hand protection, etc).
Prohibition Sign: round in shape with a white background and a circular band and diagonal bar in red. The symbol must be black and placed in the centre of the sign without obliterating the cross-bar. Typical examples of such signs are those prohibiting smoking, fire and open flames, the use of cell phones, etc.
Warning Sign: triangular in shape with a yellow background and black triangular band. The symbol or words must be black and placed in the centre of the sign. Typical examples of such signs are those warning of the danger of explosion, electric shocks, slippery walking surface, etc.

Determining the placement

Employers must identify what signs are required and display signs where messages are legible so that they can attract the attention of all concerned.

They should be placed as close as practicable to the observers line of sight and should be so sighted in relation to the particular hazard as to allow the worker or visitor ample time after first viewing the sign to heed the warning. For example, signs warning against touching switches should be placed close to the switch but signs on a construction site should be placed to allow warning to be perceived before the hazard is reached, for example adjacent to an entrance.

Signs should not be placed on movable objects such as doors.

Signs must be permanent

Permanent signs are necessary, except in cases where the workplace or hazard is temporary. Even in these cases safety signs must still be relevant. For example, the use of a portable warning sign by cleaners may be necessary if a hazard such as a slippery floor exists for a short period.

Do not position too many signs in one place

Take care to avoid using too many signboards in close proximity. Signs are only effective if they can be seen and understood. If too many signs are placed together there is a danger of confusion or of important information being overlooked.

Signs no longer relevant must be removed

If circumstances change, making a particular signboard unnecessary (ie if the hazard no longer exists), it is important to ensure its removal so that misleading information is not displayed.

Signs must be maintained and clearly seen

All signs should be properly cleaned, maintained checked, repaired, and if necessary replaced on a regular basis to ensure that they retain their intrinsic and/or functional qualities. It is also important that signs are fixed securely and are sufficiently large to be clearly seen.


Direction escape signs, should be situated so as to indicate exit routes and as many signs as necessary to ensure that at least one sign is visible from any place within the building.

Signs are, in principle, to be installed at a suitable height and in a position appropriate to the line of sight, taking account of any obstacles, either at the access point to an area in the case of a general hazard, or in the immediate vicinity of a specific hazard or object and in a well-lit and easily accessible and visible location

Do you know the right size and height for your installation?

Recommended height for installation:
2 metres to 2,5 metres from floor level to bottom of sign.

Supplementary arrow signs

Often, signs are combined, for example:

  • a red fire equipment location arrow used in conjunction with a red sign indicating the type of equipment (eg a fire extinguisher or fire hose).
  • a white on green general direction "this way" arrow used with a white on green sign indicating the whereabouts of exits, first aid equipment, eye wash, safety shower facility, etc

Care should be taken that the use of arrows to indicate the direction to fire equipment cannot be confused with direction of escape and should not be in contradiction. If there is a risk that confusion may arise which could result in those evacuating a building being misdirected, you should consider whether these signs should be used.

Other suplementary signage

It may sometimes be useful to supplement a safety sign with text to aid understanding. This may be important, for example when introducing a new or unfamiliar sign, or using a general danger or warning sign. In these cases, the meaning is reinforced if the background colour of the supplementary sign is the same as the colour used on the safety sign it is supplementing.

Any supplementary sign or text used with a particular safety sign must be chosen to reflect the same safety sign category. So, for example, if a mandatory sign is used, ensure that accompanying text (if any) describes the mandatory nature (using the word ‘shall’ rather than ‘should’ or ‘may’) of the action to be taken, such as ‘Face protection shall be worn’.

Emegency exits

People usually leave premises by the same way that they enter or by routes which are familiar to them. Alternative exits (ie all emergency exits and any exits not in normal use) should be clearly indicated so that people know there are additional ways to leave. In addition, the provision of well-signposted exits in full view will give a feeling of security in an emergency.

Make sure the fire exit sign is displayed immediately above the exit opening or, if this is not possible, choose a position where the sign can be clearly seen and is least likely to be obstructed or obscured by smoke.

Where an exit cannot be seen or where a person escaping may be in doubt about the location of an exit (eg in warehouses where goods for transit and other obstructions may prevent a clear view of the exit doors), fire exit signs, including a directional arrow, are appropriate at suitable points along the escape route.

In buildings with multiple occupants a common approach to the provision of fire safety signs is sensible so that people are not confused about the exit routes from the building. In such cases, it is normally the owner of the building who has responsibility for displaying signs in common areas (eg stairways) and if there is any doubt check this with your local fire department for fire safety. Individual occupiers are normally responsible for the signs necessary within their part of the building.

Your municipal fire service may, in addition to the standard fire safety signs, require provision of certain supplementary signs to aid the effective and efficient use of the escape routes provided. For instance, where there is a danger that a door which is a fire exit may become obstructed (because its importance is not appreciated) such as a final exit door opening into a car park or storage yard, or a seldom used intercommunicating or bypass door between rooms, a conspicuous ‘Fire Escape – Keep Clear’ sign should be shown on the appropriate faces of the door. Check with your local authority if you have any doubts.

If the level of natural light is poor, then adequate illumination (which includes emergency lighting) will be required. Signs incorporating photoluminescent materials may also have a role in poor light conditions.

Highlighting fire fighting equipment

The colour red is used to indicate the location of firefighting equipment and the location will normally be indicated through use of a sign, or by colouring the background behind the equipment red. Where the equipment itself is predominantly red there may be no need to colour the background red as well. The sign must be large enough to allow firefighting equipment to be easily located.

If for any reason firefighting equipment is placed in a position hidden from direct view, indicate its location using appropriate directional arrows, together with the relevant firefighting equipment sign. Care should be taken to avoid confusion by ensuring these do not contradict the escape route direction.

Using signs to mark areas, rooms and enclosures

It is important to mark those areas, rooms or enclosures used for the storage of significant quantities of hazardous substances or mixtures by a suitable warning sign, unless the warning labels on individual containers are clearly visible from outside or nearby.

Where stores are being used for hazardous chemicals or mixtures they should be indicated by the relevant warning sign (the yellow triangle black pictogram warning signs). If there is no equivalent warning sign in these provisions, then the relevant red diamind hazard pictogram from the Globally Harmonised System (GHS) must be used. Stores containing a number of different substances may be indicated by the ‘general danger’ warning sign.

The signs or labels referred to above must be positioned, as appropriate, near storage areas or on doors leading into storage rooms.

Personal Protective Equipment:

Employers are legally obliged to ensure that suitable PPE is provided to employees exposed to a risk to their health and safety. This includes high visibility clothing for those working on the roadside and waterproof clothing for those working outdoors as well as protective clothing such as gloves and safety goggles. Employers must also ensure that the PPE is maintained in efficient working order and in good repair. Appropriate signage must be also be displayed in affected areas of the workplace.