Safety Symbols – BSI Concerned Over Escape Exit Confusion

Press release - 5 July 2004

A recent survey commissioned by the Health & Safety Sign Association (HSSA) has revealed potentially dire consequences for public health and safety. Research presented to the UK National Standards Body, BSI reveals that UK consumers find life-saving escape exit signs posted in buildings and public places confusing. BSI and HSSA are lobbying for clearer, better-understood public safety and information symbols.

Allan Asher, Chairman of the Consumer Policy Committee of BSI says: "A worrying number of people don’t understand the meaning of warning signs that are meant to help. The potential consequences of not understanding a fire escape symbol over a normal exit sign could be grave.

"The research also illustrates other, potentially catastrophic findings, with only one in five consumers understanding the biological hazard warning sign, for example."

Ensuring all signs and symbols conform to standards

BSI is working to ensure all signs and symbols conform to standards that will enable the Health and Safety Executive to provide accurate information for consumers and industry. Signs are tested to International Standard ISO 9186: 2001, Graphical Symbols – Test methods for comprehension.

The purpose of a safety sign is to help people immediately understand its message and take appropriate action to prevent accident or potentially to save lives in the event of an emergency evacuation.

UK legislation requires every employer to ensure employees understand the meaning of signs and actions taken in conjunction with signs. Signs should be standardised and tested. If the relevant testing shows low comprehension, the sign should not be used. Applying graphical symbols that are not standardised and have not been tested in accordance with ISO 9186 - so that comprehension credentials are known - is negligent.

Meeting legislation and reducing risk to consumers

Jim Creak, chairman of the HSSA, says: "The confusion is being caused by not conforming to the British Standard. The new Standards BS 5499 Part 1 2002, Part 5 2002, Part 4 2000 address all the problems that the research has highlighted.

"It is for architects, building and estates managers and fire and safety enforcement agencies to promote the standard to meet legislation and ensure consumers are not at risk. The confusion is caused specifically when graphical symbols are used without explanatory supplementary text.

"Whilst the aim is to have these safety messages understood without text, the research has shown that this should be after a process of education, familiarity and association with the meaning conveyed. In addition to this problem with standardised symbols other graphical symbols are being illustrated in HSE and DCLG guidance that are not standardised, not tested in accordance with ISO 9186 and are even more confusing."

Allan Asher adds: "It costs no more to manufacture or purchase a comprehensible sign than a non-recognisable sign. However it may cost lives if the wrong sign is bought. The Health and Safety Sign Association is ensuring that the sign industry produces products that are clear and comprehensively understood."

Current British Standards require all graphical symbol escape route signs to be accompanied by explanatory text to ensure understanding. This action will help both the industry and the consumer to achieve a much safer working and public environment.

Editors’ Notes

Health and Safety Sign Association

The Health and Safety Sign Association (HSSA) is working to make sure the sign industry produces products that are 100% effective. For further information about the survey, ‘The Comprehensibility Testing’, by Dr Jeremy Foster go to