FM Articles

Did Your Cleaning Crew Forget the Sign?


The professional cleaning industry “talks” safety, but does not always “walk” safety – especially when it comes to the proper use of safety signs. Cleaning contractors and in-house cleaning professionals often forget the importance of installing safety signs, especially if they believe they are the only ones in a facility. The first problem with this is that the 9-to-5 workday is disappearing in the 21st-century office space. Now staffers come into work just about any time of the day, any day of the week.

Another reason this is a bad policy is because some of the most serious slip-and-fall accidents have occurred when cleaning workers themselves “forgot” that a carpet had just been extracted or a floor refinished.

This tells us that the use of safety signs is important for both building users and cleaning professionals, and it’s also the law. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 1910.145 specifications require that safety signs be installed wherever there are specific hazards that without identification could result in an accident or injury. OSHA also has regulations regarding danger signs. For instance:

  • A sign that indicates “danger” must be red, white, and black.
  • A “caution” sign must be in yellow, black, and white.
  • Any safety instructions – typical guidelines or suggestions – are to be in green and white.

Also, the wording should be easy to read, according to OSHA regulations, and contain specific information that is easily understood. However, with the new global harmonizing system (GHS), the presentation of specific information has been changed to include pictograms that convey warning and safety information no matter the language of the user. The use of pictograms also is required to comply with American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard Z535.

While the GHS is putting greater emphasis on pictograms to convey a message, the words used on safety signs are still important and refer to different potential hazards. This means a sign that indicates “caution,” for example, might not be the appropriate sign to install in a situation where there is considerable risk of injury or even death. In its place, a more appropriate sign would read “danger.”

Here are the different situations in which a safety sign should be installed, for instance, over a hard-surface or carpeted floor dictated by the potential hazard:

Hazard may be present: If a potential hazard may be present that could lead to an accident or injury, the appropriate sign to use would read “caution.” For instance, say lightbulbs are being changed in an interior walkway. Although it is doubtful anything would happen that could result in an accident, it still could happen, calling for the use of a caution sign.

Hazard possible but not probable: A more urgent message would indicate there is the possibility but not necessarily the probability of an injury or death. In such situations, a “warning” sign would be installed. A warning sign often is also posted when there is a biohazard present, for instance in a storage room.

Hazard high probability: This is the most urgent of the three types of safety signs, and the word “danger” will be included. It is doubtful a cleaning contractor would ever install such a sign if performing typical cleaning tasks. It should be used only in extreme situations in which people could be harmed. It is not to be used if the hazard involves only property damage.Safety

Other words used on safety signs in the professional cleaning industry include “notice,” which might be posted outside a facility, for instance, to tell building users that floor or carpet cleaning work is being performed inside. “Emergency” is used to indicate procedural instructions such as “emergency exit” or “emergency eye bath.”

Replacing Safety Signs
The new GHS labeling changes have specific dates by which they must be placed on cleaning solutions, but similar requirements do not apply to safety signs. In most cases, signs are replaced when they are no longer readable, damaged, or their appearance has degraded.

However, when it is time to replace older safety signs, those that comply with the new GHS labeling should be selected. Also, when selecting new safety signs, look for the following:

  • Signs should be highly visible; many green and yellow signs are fluorescent, which enhances their visibility.
  • They should be written in both English and Spanish (if used in North America).
  • They should be durable and stackable.
  • The reason the sign is posted or the potential risk – for instance, “wet floor” – should be indicated.
  • Signs should have UV protection so they can be used outside.
  • They should be three-sided and visible from approximately 35 feet.
  • Height should be 25 to 35 inches.

Whether using new or older safety signs, it is important to place them several feet before the work or risk area. Signs should also outline this area, so building users know exactly where they can and cannot traverse. And signs should be removed as soon as the risk has been eliminated. If not removed, the sign will lose its impact and meaning; building users will come to ignore safety signs, which is one of the worst things that can happen.

GHS is a major step forward in helping our industry “walk the talk” when it comes to safety, whether it involves chemicals or safety signs. Cleaning contractors and distributors should never underestimate the importance of these signs; their purpose is the same as that of the entire professional cleaning industry and that is to help keep building users healthy.

Vicky Adams is Category Manager for Safety, Gloves, and Foodservice products for Impact Products, the dominant manufacturer of the Supplies and Accessories Category of the Cleaning and Maintenance Industry. She can be reached through her company website at