Signs and symbols: are we overdoing it?

Signs and symbols: are we overdoing it?

After an outing to Stadtpark, determined to write an article on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster investigation, our columnist decided to change the topic to signs and symbols in the workplace.

I woke up early on the final day of February, a Sunday. With Covid restrictions still very much in place across Europe, and knowing that I needed to write the next article for my column, I decided to put my laptop in my backpack and venture out into the fresh air. I took a walk to Stadtpark (City Park), located on the left bank of the River Wien, which runs through the centre of Vienna.

Stadtpark covers about 96 000 m2. It is a place of true tranquillity and peace, filled with many semiotics of nature. Although there was still a chill in the air, spring had just begun, so there were many people relaxing and watching swans and ducks paddling in the water. Some were watching the koi carp fish swimming in the shallows of the large pond; others were participating in a yoga session; and others were jogging through the park.

The Stadtpark first opened on August 20, 1862, and is designed with lovely pathways, grass areas, large trees and an abundance of colours. There are many statues of famous people, including the iconic marble monument and statue of Johann Strauss Jnr (1825 to 1899), also known as the King of Waltz.

On the one side of the park is a 19th century Renaissance-style building where concerts are held. It also houses a lovely restaurant and, if it weren’t for the Covid restrictions, I would have sat on the terrace and had a cold Austrian beer, enjoying the sunshine and clear skies.
Okay, enough advertising for the city of Vienna! Let’s talk about risk and safety.

Semiotics in the workplace

Recently, while I was writing a chapter on semiotics for a book that I was co-authoring, it dawned on me that as risk and safety practitioners we are probably missing the point when it comes to workplace signs and symbols. I’m generalising but, unfortunately, I feel people working in the risk and safety field do not sufficiently appreciate the importance and significance of semiotics in the workplace and, more crucially, on the conscious as well as unconscious minds.

In a previous article, I wrote about a stroll I took on the Danube Island, also in Vienna, where I observed that there was very little information-giving signage. But too many signs can also be a negative thing. I am not saying that there should be no signs in the workplace; however, I challenge our profession to assess whether the existing signs provide the intended outcomes.

Over the years I have visited numerous companies in many industries, from steelworks, chemical manufacturers, bottling companies and breweries to vehicle and aeroplane manufacturers. In all of these companies there is usually a plethora of semiotics, including warning signs, prohibitory signs, information signs, banners, billboards, posters and more.

Shortly before Covid-19 hit the world, I visited a famous beverage company. This was one of many visits I have conducted in an effort to learn what others are doing to try and provide safe working environments.

What were the common observations?

During the two-hour site visit it was obvious that the beverage company focused on signs, banners and posters as part of its risk and safety communication initiatives.

It seemed to be accepted – there and elsewhere, in my experience – that warnings, signs and slogans would reduce the on-site risk levels and prevent incidents from occurring. Sure, signs do have a role to play, but careful consideration should be given to which signs should be displayed and what added value they are really likely to bring.

So, what is “clutter”?

Many workplaces simply have an overload of signs, something I consider to be “clutter”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “to clutter” as “to fill something in an untidy and badly organised way”. This is what we see in companies around the world, including the beverage company that I visited. Signs are placed everywhere, but sometimes it’s obvious that no one has given any thought to what is displayed.

In one of the departments I visited there was a large sign depicting all the PPE that had to be worn before one could enter the area. The sign showed a hard hat, boots, gloves and overall. However, there was a second sign, located 20 metres away, that showed everything that was listed in the previous sign, but this one included eye protection.

I guessed that this sign was older, as it was faded and corroded. Nonetheless, the difference between the two signs could cause confusion or, depending on which sign was noticed (if any), the person entering could be ill-equipped and at risk of exposure to eye injuries.

About 30 symbolic signs were displayed on one of the department’s walls. These varied from individual information signs listing the PPE and equipment needed (even though these were displayed at the entrance) to four signs of different symbols warning people of moving and rotating equipment (even though the equipment was fully guarded), plus a huge number of signs depicting various safety slogans.

Ironically, there were many signs with no picture or icons, only English text. Many of the employees I spoke to could not understand English. I thought to myself, “Wow, what a wall with lots to say, probably costing a bit, but probably having little value.”

Clutter tends to lead people to ignore things consciously and unconsciously. The conscious mind can only absorb a certain amount of information at a given time. Walls festooned with signs provide almost no value. At best, employees will absorb only those signs that attract their attention or are relevant and significant to them.

Why is it so different at home?

I am sure very few people have information signs throughout their homes and in their private garages. We don’t plaster our walls and equipment with warnings. And yet, we do have electrical appliances, rotating equipment and chemicals at home.

I wondered about the benefits of displaying signs on domestic equipment, so I had small signs printed which I stuck on my toaster, oven, kettle, coffee machine, hot water taps, hairdryer, mixing machine, electric toothbrush and razor. These signs warned against various dangers, including hot surfaces, chemical substances, electricity, hot water and moving parts.

The signs looked a little silly (and were an irritation, truth be told), but I left them in place for a while. You can imagine the look of surprise on the faces of visitors, including my cleaning lady, in the days that followed.


What is the solution?

Organisations should make an effort to remove the “clutter”, assess what is needed and then standardise the signs, the numbers needed, and strategic locations of the signs, posters and banners.

Furthermore, companies should consider which messages they want to communicate to employees and other persons on site. Only then can they work out how to convey their messages in an uncluttered manner.

Those responsible for the signs that will be displayed, or the development of posters, banners and billboards, should obtain some guidance and/or training in semiotics and the significance of the messages depicted. All signs and symbols have not only meaning but also trade-offs.

These signs and symbols should also be applicable to the operation and the relevant risk of that particular operation. Buying off-the-shelf posters and slogans is not necessarily the best option. Posters and slogans that are developed in-house are more relevant and more likely to have a bigger impact. However, it is important that these be refreshed from time to time.

Although most of the warning signs are focused on objects, the focus of the posters and slogans should be on the human element of risk and safety. Safety posters should be designed to convey a positive message rather than an instructional and controlling one.


Conclusion

To reiterate: I believe that consideration should be given to how much signage is actually needed. When I placed those signs around my apartment as a test, it took weeks before I recognised the sign I’d placed next to the bath tap – a reminder that, over time, we fail to consciously take note of the signs and symbols that surround us.

So, the right questions to ask are: how much do we want to display on the walls of our operations, how much of it is clutter, how much does it cost and are we getting the desired benefit?

“There is no need to throw the baby out with the water”: in other words, there’s no need to get rid of all signs, posters and banners, but it is helpful to think strategically and remove clutter that adds no value.

All signs and symbols have significance and, as a result, have various spin-offs in the understanding of their meanings. The messages we depict on our posters contribute to the creation of the culture of an organisation. It makes sense to get this right.

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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