Everywhere a Sign – Signs in Everyday Life

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign … Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” was a hit song for Ottawa’s Five Man Electrical Band (written by founder Les Emmerson) in the early ‘70s (19 not 18!), but the query in the refrain still can be heard today.

“Sign” shares a common root with the word “signal” and the noun may refer to an object that communicates by words &/or pictures; or an indication/event related to something that has taken, or is about to take, place. We will concentrate on the former in this discussion.

Signs are a fact of everyday life and at best may provide a quick and concise way of communicating information in a variety of circumstances. In some cases there is a legal requirement for signs (e.g. fire exits, hazard communication); others are for commercial purposes (e.g. advertising, business or product identification/branding); some may help ease life’s journey (e.g. rest stop, washrooms, HOV lanes, deer crossing); whereas we also encounter those that appear to just be of the “blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind” variety.

When the sign content and/or format is prescribed by a regulation or organization, life is fairly simple. The producer of the sign has a specification to follow and the audience at whom the message is directed can be educated or trained to take the expected course of action.

Signs may be a stand-in for things that we usually consider “labels” (e.g. HazCom 2012) or be included in the definition of what can be considered a “label” (e.g. Ontario’s WHMIS regulation).

Workplace Safety Signs from ICC »

What is on a sign?

The information on a sign can be in either written or symbolic form and there are advantages and disadvantages to either method. Signs can also include elements of both words and symbols.

HazMat/DG placards are a specific form of sign that must be available when a hazard is present- but must not be used if a false or misleading indication is given.

The disadvantage of symbols can arise when people haven’t been educated in their meaning. An example of this occurred with my son, at the age of 4 or so, and a highway sign years ago (my apologies TA- I’ve never asked whether it was a well-developed interpretative deduction; or a precocious sense of humour). On spotting the following sign while on a drive one day, he enthusiastically exclaimed “Look out, Dad! Snakes chasing cars up ahead!”:

Slippery When Wet Traffic Sign

On a more serious note, the “new” GHS pictogram for health hazards has been referred to as the “exploding chest”, “Spiderman alert” and various other names when people were unsure of what to call it before they had been trained.

GHS Respritory Icon

A frustrating situation arose at a company that wanted to prevent semi-trailers/tanker trucks from using the main entrance that was designed for smaller vehicles. The initial sign posted was similar to the one below:

Fence Sign Chemical Company

As might be expected, drivers coming in for the first time, unsure of the company and cautious in a built-up area, would see the company name and “Truck Entrance”. Usually the last line wouldn’t register.

Changing the sign to convey the desired message more clearly essentially eliminated the risk to pedestrians near/within this area of the factory (not to mention the truckers’ frustration at not being able to easily navigate to the ultimate in-plant destination):

Fence Sign Chemical Company With Icons

Signs can verge on the ridiculous- I’m sure many have heard (I actually encountered one years ago- wish I’d had a camera- but then in a washroom, perhaps not a good idea) of the early electric hand dryers with the warning statement “Do not operate with wet hands”!

Color, too can be a source of confusion. I recall a situation in an explosives plant where lines were “signed” by color coding them. Unfortunately the foreman was color-blind (a not uncommon condition among the male gender) and was embarrassed to admit it. He thought he had enough experience to know which line was which- but unfortunately during the renovation some lines had been switched. Luckily the experience he had resulted in keen observation of the near run-away reaction and the process was shut down before serious consequences occurred.

Whether you’re involved with process identification, hazard communication or want to direct people to the lunchroom, consider the standards that must be followed for prescribed signs and education/training that ensures understanding of the message by the audience.

Regulatory expertise can help address proper regulatory signage; sometimes experience and another point-of-view are needed to ensure non-standard message confusion.

A lighter look at the topic can be found in YouTube renditions of the song that introduced this topic (WARNING: neither the author nor ICC Compliance Center are responsible for offence given/received from the content in videos).

In closing, a brief reference to the alternate meaning- from the closing of an old 15 minute CBC radio series (The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour) – “Stay calm! Be brave! Wait for the signs!”


Clifton J. Brown

Clifton J. Brown

Clifton Brown has over 35 years of practical experience in the Canadian chemical and manufacturing industries. He has worked in research, quality, environment, health and safety in a range of industries including explosives, pesticides, manufacturing/contract packaging, pharmaceuticals, and specialty chemicals. This experience has provided a basis for dealing with a variety of regulatory approaches that have been useful in implementing and evaluating/auditing compliance. This experience has also been useful in effectively helping others to understand and apply the regulations in a North American context. Clifton represents ICC on the RDC regulatory and safe operations committees, participates in Transport Canada consultations and attends WSPS, CSSE and related activities.