As Jessica stepped into the laboratory, she immediately noticed a sign that read, “Warning: Flammable Gas Storage Area.” Something about the sign seemed off to her, however. She was familiar with the lab’s safety protocols, and she knew that the area she had entered did not store any flammable gasses.
She paused, thinking about whether she should tell her supervisor. She instead decided to trust the sign and moved on to finish her work in the lab.
The trust in that sign and its placement ultimately proved to be a mistake. Later that day, a fire broke out in the lab. Investigators discovered that the warning sign had been placed in the wrong area by mistake, leading lab personnel to make another mistake by using ignition sources nearby.
Jessica’s experience is an example of the importance of ensuring lab safety signs are accurate in content, location and overall communication. It may seem like a small oversight … a wrong detail here and there. But even miscommunicating the smallest piece of correct information can put workers at risk and compromise the safety of the entire laboratory.
Here are some common lab safety sign mistakes and how your laboratory can avoid them.
Incorrect Placement Of Signs
The above scenario highlights what can happen when a safety sign is incorrectly placed. In Jessica’s situation, the sign was placed in the wrong room. However, mounting a sign out of eyesight or away from the piece of equipment it is meant to complement can be just as dangerous.
Lab safety signs should be placed in a location that has visible light and is easily accessible to all laboratory workers. Signs should be placed at eye level and in locations where hazards may be present, such as near lab equipment or containers that contain hazardous materials.
Lab managers should also place signs in areas where workers may be unfamiliar with safety protocols, including areas where visitors or new workers may be present.
While you may believe all of your signs are placed correctly, it’s a good idea to take proactive measures to avoid this mistake. For example, performing regular safety audits of the laboratory to ensure all safety signs are in the correct locations can catch a mistake before it’s too late. Signs should also be reviewed regularly to ensure they are still legible and not faded, torn or damaged.
Another common mistake is using the wrong sign for the hazard. Different types of lab safety signs communicate different types of information, and using the wrong sign can lead to confusion and accidents.
For example, using a “caution” sign for a more serious hazard that requires a “danger” sign can underestimate the seriousness of the hazard.
It’s important to know your lab safety symbols and which correspond to which type of hazard. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has adopted the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) in the United States. The GHS is part of OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) and includes nine important lab safety symbols anyone working in this type of environment should know.
These nine hazard symbols include:
- Flame over circle, which identifies oxidizers
- Flame, which identifies flammable materials
- Exploding bomb, which indicates explosives are present
- Skull and crossbones, which identifies substances that have an immediate and severe toxic effect
- Corrosion, which indicates that a material can cause skin corrosion or burns
- Gas cylinder, which means that a gas is stored under pressure
- Health hazard, which indicates that a cancer-causing agent is present
- Environment, which alerts individuals that present chemicals are toxic to aquatic wildlife
- Exclamation mark, which indicates that the substance can cause immediate irritation
You can read more about these nine safety symbols and see what they should look like in our article, Know Your Lab Safety Symbols. These aren’t the only lab safety signs you may see in a lab, however. Other examples include:
- Danger signs like “high voltage” or “radioactive material”
- Warning signs like “wet floor,” “strong magnetic fields” or “hazardous waste storage”
- Safety instruction signs like “wear eye protection,” “personal protective equipment required” or “do not eat or drink in this area”
- Prohibition signs like “no smoking” or “no entry”
- Emergency signs like “emergency shower” or “fire extinguisher”
It's important to review the meaning of each type of safety sign with laboratory personnel regularly and ensure each sign is being correctly used for the hazard that is present. If excessive signage is a concern in your workspace, one solution is to complement signage with clear labeling of containers and equipment to warn of any potential hazardous conditions.
Lack Of Multilingual Signs
In multicultural workplaces, not having multilingual safety signs can be a significant safety risk. Workers who do not speak the language used on the signs may not understand the instructions or warnings, leading to accidents and injuries.
This can be a concern as well if your laboratory is located in a region where there are many cultures, and therefore the possibility that visitors or contractors may speak a different language as well.
To avoid this mistake, it’s important to ensure that lab safety signs are available in all languages spoken by the laboratory personnel. Using pictograms or symbols instead of words can also be helpful for communicating safety information across language barriers.
Faded Or Damaged Signs
You may have the right signs in the right locations, but if they are damaged in any way, that damage may impact how any potential damages are communicated.
Over time, signs can fade, become torn or sustain other wear-and-tear damages. This can lead to misunderstandings or accidents since workers may not be aware of potential hazards or safety protocols.
You can prevent mistakes due to faded or damaged signs from happening by regularly inspecting all lab safety signs. Replace any that are faded or damaged right away. To reduce the risk of signs experiencing a short lifespan, they should be made of durable materials and able to withstand the conditions of the laboratory environment.
No Signage At All
Perhaps one of the greatest grievances in a lab is no signage at all. This can lead to workers being unaware of potential dangers or unsure of how to respond in emergencies.
By not providing the proper signage, you may also be breaking OSHA and other regulatory requirements. Lab safety rules and guidelines set forth by the regulatory organization, including OSHA Standard 1910.145, outline the criteria for safety signs and tags that must be used to warn employees of potential hazards in the workplace, including laboratories.
For example, lab safety signs are required to be visible at all times and must contain specific information related to the potential hazards present in the laboratory. The signs must be placed in areas where there is a significant risk of injury or exposure to hazardous materials or equipment.
Some common examples of lab safety signs required by OSHA include warning signs for hazardous materials, biohazard signs, radiation hazard signs and emergency exit signs. It’s important for employers to ensure that these signs are properly installed and maintained to help prevent accidents and injuries in the laboratory.
Conducting regular safety audits of the laboratory can also help you identify any areas where additional signage may be necessary. Workers should also be encouraged to report any potential hazards or areas where additional signage may be helpful.
As a lab manager, you must ensure all of your employees and students who work in your lab receive the proper training and have the right resources in place to help prioritize safety in the lab. These resources include the proper signage as well as updated training that informs them of what these signs mean and where they should be located in the lab.