CPD articles

CPD: Site safety signage

8 January 2013

• Common issues with signs
• The effects of poor signage
• Checklist of what you should be saying

Click here to be taken to the online CPD test paper for the January 2013 issue.

A recent study has revealed that signs on construction sites, like the ones shown here, are not communicating the messages they are meant to. Dr Fred Sherratt MCIOB reports.

From the gates of most UK construction sites the voice of safety management can be heard loud and clear. Various luminous adornments proclaim the presence of “deep excavations”, or remind the workforce that “PPE must be worn at all times”, “Authorised Access Only!”, or that “Site safety starts here”.

Signage relating to safety is an inherent part of construction sites, due in part to legislative requirements, but also as a key part of the construction manager’s safety management toolkit. It is a vital method of communication and is used throughout our sites in a variety of ways: to highlight hazards, to remind operatives of best practice or to ensure the correct PPE is being worn in designated areas.

However, potential problems have also been identified. Too many signs can result in “signage fatigue” setting in, meaning that operatives cease to read them at all. Or signs become redundant in the ever- changing construction site environment, giving site personnel another reason for not paying too much attention to them.

This article discusses some key findings that emerged from research undertaken for my PhD thesis — Constructing safety on sites: an exploration of the social construction of safety on large UK construction sites — which examined the way we talk about safety on our sites and included an examination of safety signage. Images of site safety signs were gathered from five large construction sites run by a single top 30 national contractor in the north-west. All were sizeable schemes over £20m in value. The study employed a “social constructionist” approach: that is, how the way we talk about things — through words, text and images — impacts on how we then use and act upon that information.

Some signs are confusing

How we talk about safety

Through prohibitions, warnings and directions, safety signage not only develops a “conversation” between the implied reader, implied object and an implied author exercising authority, but also reveals the assumed attributes of these characters and their motivations. For example, the sign “Scaffolding incomplete do not use” is common enough to be mass produced, yet there is no comparable sign requesting that operatives do not jump from the scaffolding. Pedestrians are asked to “Please use other footpath”, but such pleasantries are not included for the workers, who are told in no uncertain terms “no hat, no boots, no job”.

Signage on sites also includes a large number of informal “project specific” signs created in the office by site managers, rather than commercially produced, and are used as more ad hoc site management tools. Such signs can be directional to ensure safe walking routes are maintained, for access control to restrict entry to hazardous locations, or to tackle particular issues. However, these signs can send mixed messages. As Hermer and Hunt describe in their 1996 paper Official Graffiti of the Everyday, the “No U-turn” sign gives a clear indication that this is a highly useful place to do a U-turn, but at the same time asks people not to do it.

Danger: but how dangerous?

Danger! Or do we mean safety?

A distinct category of signs found on the sites related to hazards within the site environment, including “Caution!”, “Danger” or “Warning!” signs. However, in many cases the signs were accompanied by little or no explanation of the cause of the danger. While some signs explained the operations that were occurring, such as “scabbling ongoing”, they did not explain why such an activity was a hazard, nor did they explain what action was needed to stay safe. Given the range of skills and trades on a site at any given time, and indeed the wide range of practices that some terms can cover — for example “hot works” — the text of these signs lacked information. Readers were left to decide what they should do when faced with a sign that simply labelled rather than informed.

Another common practice was labelling “Danger!” on safety measures. For example, safety barriers were frequently used, but were then adorned with “Danger!” signs. While “danger” suggests actual or potential exposure to risk or harm, here “Danger!” was placed on safety barriers, the physical manifestation of “safety” measures. This approach actually implies that the barriers themselves were dangerous, a confusing contradiction given that the danger was often neither clarified nor even identified.

Who has authority to enter?

However, this approach was often found side-by-side with signs proclaiming “danger” where no safety measures had been put in place beyond the sign itself, for example, the sign “Danger! Men working overhead” employed with no corresponding cordon, barrier or netting. Here there is a reality of potential danger, yet precisely the same text is used as if safety measures were in place.

This use of “Danger!” in circumstances that are significantly different in practice could result in complacency, and even desensitisation of the workforce to the signs themselves. If they have to make their own observations to determine the safety of the situation, why bother to read the signs at all?

A common factor in many of the “Danger!” and “Hazard” signs is that they were frequently informal, created in the site office for use in specific locations and at specific instances. This inevitably results in differences of approach and could explain the various assumptions of audience awareness, experience and knowledge. The need to produce such signs on sites is certainly necessary — they enable the site team to create precisely the sign they need for each instance and location. However, site managers need to consider design and wording carefully to ensure the signs say precisely what they mean to say, and communicate to the widest possible audience.

PPE: safety in objects Safety on our sites is often reduced to PPE. In the study, PPE was topic of the safety signage in two key areas: at the site gates where the PPE standards for the site are often established; and as another articulation of “Danger!” on sites.

Indeed, hazards are often labelled on sites in terms of the PPE needed to mitigate against them, and while this clarifies the action the reader needs to take, it also raises another issue. Although the reader can see what PPE they need to stay safe, the sign often neglects to inform of the origin or nature of the hazard. The audience is simply told what to do, and can guess the nature of the hazard from the advised PPE, resulting in problems if the hazard is intermittent or no longer there. To be told ear protection is required in a work zone as quiet as a church does not encourage readers to pay attention the next time such a sign is seen, resulting in sign fatigue.

What's the source of the hazard?

(Safe) access?

Safe walking routes for emergencies are required by the CDM Regulations, and a large number of site signs are dedicated to managing safe walking routes around projects. Much of this is directional, encouraging the workforce to follow designated safe walking routes.

However, there is again a lack of information. Signs frequently do not advise where such walkways lead, or whether it is actually in the audience’s interests to follow them to gain access to their workplace. The lack of a destination was common, even within signs that had been made by the site teams themselves. There is scope for more detail and the articulation of reasoning as to why operatives should use the walkways. 

In some cases in the study, a destination was provided within the sign text, but some level of knowledge of the site itself was assumed. For an operative new to a site, or not familiar with the labelling of all the blocks or areas, such signs can be as much use as those with no clear destination at all.

In addition, access is often managed through signs declaring “no access”. These signs were naturally associated with authorisation, ownership and management of restricted areas. Logos were often used to identify the manufacturer of the sign, often the main contractor, but where generic signs were used, there was no indication of which organisation had placed the sign and whether the reader was authorised or not was something of a mystery.

A common anomaly was the presence of redundant signage. Either the object to which the sign was fixed had been moved, or the construction site had developed around the sign, rendering it obsolete. Redundant access signs can have several repercussions, including encouragement of unsafe actions, wasted effort and ultimately a lack of confidence in all signs.

Conclusion

Despite the study specifically examining site safety signage, the actual acknowledgement of safety within the text of the signs was most prominent through its omission. Although the signage could be categorised through common safety management functions such as access, notification of hazards and PPE management, these functions were not described as safe access, a safe workplace and safe working practices.

Rather, safety was left out, and ‘Danger!’, PPE and simple “walking routes” were labelled through signs which don’t reinforce the safety aspects of safety management practices. Lack of information meant existing knowledge of both construction work and the logistics of the sites was needed for the signs to be clearly understood, which raises further concerns. Accidents and incidents most frequently occur to inexperienced workers, or those who have only been on a site for a short time. How we communicate safety through site safety signage is therefore critical.

This is an area of safety management which is often produced ad hoc among the other pressures of everyday site life, but it is one which needs prioritisation and consideration. Too many redundant or vague signs can cause disengagement and signage fatigue, rendering this method of safety communication mute.

Wording needs careful consideration

Safety sign checklist

When you next order or produce a sign for your site, ask yourself the following questions:

Dr Fred Sherratt’s study was supported by the Tony Gage Scholarship from the CIOB, and her PhD was jointly funded by the University of Bolton and Laing O’Rourke. A former site manager, she is now a lecturer in Construction Management at the University of Bolton

Click here to be taken to the online CPD test paper for the January 2013 issue.

Comments

Commendations for the author's thoughts, thru day and night safety must be insured for the safe moving of pedestrians and vehicles. Sign design also deserves our attention.

M. ALI EL KASSEM (ICIOB), 27 January 2013

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