Do we have an international language?

This article originally appeared in ISO Focus+ May 2012 Issue, written by Bary Gray. He is  Chair of ISO/TC 145, Graphical symbols, having previously been Chair of ISO/TC 145/SC 1, Public information symbols. He is Convenor of two working groups in ISO/TC 145 and contributes to the work of other technical committees in ISO and the European Committee for Standardization (CEN).

Crossing language and cultural barriers, internationally understood safety signs and graphical symbols can mitigate risks and avoid potentially dangerous situations. ISO technical committee ISO/TC 145, Graphical symbols, in particular subcommittee 2, works hard in this area, ensuring these signs and symbols contribute to increased safety in the workplace, home, car and elsewhere.

Used locally, understood globally Why is a sign’s graphical symbol so important?

Firstly, graphical symbols are international as they do not rely on language. In our globalized world, internationally standardized graphical symbols enable everyone to recognize and react rapidly to hazardous situations.

Secondly, graphical symbols can be easier to display and be more obvious and visible
than a written message. A simple text-free message can be more obvious and visible.
The symbol can also be larger than a sign with words.
Thirdly, people who find it difficult to read words or letters often find symbols easier to
understand. Similarly, well-designed graphical symbols can assist those with vision problems.

Types of safety signs Safety signs are a combination of colour, shape and graphical symbol. The colour and shape help users to recognize the type of sign.

Warning signs highlight potential hazards and enable people to take appropriate action.
The registered safety signs in ISO 7010:2011, Graphical symbols – Safety colors and
safety signs – Registered safety signs, include the warning sign for electricity, seen
in workplaces and in public areas, and the radioactive material sign. The water-safety
signage standard ISO 20712-1:2008, Water safety signs and beach safety flags – Part 1:
Specifications for water safety signs used in workplaces and public areas, indicates
potential hazards such as underwater obstructions.

Prohibition signs warn that a specific behavior is forbidden. Fire equipment signs let people know the equipment’s location and/or identification. Mandatory action signs
indicate that a specific action has to be taken and tend to appear in workplaces. For example, signs covering personal protection equipment instruct operatives to wear appropriate clothing such as head or eye protection. Although people should have safety
instructions, the graphical symbols remind them of when and where safety equipment should be worn. Safe condition signs cover emergency evacuation and
safety equipment, for example the location of first-aid equipment.

Emergency evacuation

Perhaps some of the most important examples of safety signs are those used for
emergency evacuation. When a fire breaks out or a tsunami occurs, it is essential that people can find their way to a place of safety via a safe, clearly signed route. Well positioned, standardized signing is vital to ensure that those at risk evacuate in an orderly, calm and safe manner, even in an unfamiliar country where the language is not understood and panic is possible.

As shown in ISO 23601:2009, Safety identification – Escape and evacuation
plan signs, signs also appear on escape and evacuation plan signs in places such as
hotels, factories and offices. Knowing the safe route in an emergency could make the
difference between life and death.

Similarly, ISO 16069:2004, Graphical symbols – Safety signs – Safety way guidance
systems (SWGS), covers safety-way guidance systems, combining safety signs
with route and doorway markings.

ISO 20712-3:2008, Water safety signs and beach safety flags – Part 3: Guidance
for use, covers tsunami evacuation and the optimum use of water safety signs and
beach safety flags. Other ways symbols are used Other types of graphical symbol also help to increase understanding and reduce risk.

Covered by ISO 7000, graphical symbols for use on equipment can have the same virtues
of recognisability. For example, symbols in our cars enable us to quickly understand controls such as windscreen wipers and horn, increasing road safety. In the workplace and at home, we benefit from the globally recognizable symbols on equipment.
For the benefit of all Together with its subcommittees, ISO/TC 145 takes its role seriously to make sure graphical symbols contribute to the well-being of people worldwide.

ISO/TC 145 has also developed standards for design principles to ensure the best possible results. All safety signs and symbols are available via the ISO Online Browsing Platform.

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