Machine safety labeling standards can lower manufacturing risk

Creating effective product safety labels can dramatically reduce accidents and improve safety communication while poorly designed product safety labels can increase the dangers and hazards for both the worker and the company, according to safety standards.


If your company manufactures machinery which has potential hazards associated with its transportation, installation, use, maintenance, decommissioning, and/or disposal, you most likely have a very strong need to create effective product safety labels. This task must be done right. Simply put, the stakes are too high for this job to be done incorrectly-people's lives and your company's financial well-being are on the line. Based on standards committee experiences over the past 25 years, safety labels can do one of two things:

  1. If properly designed, they can dramatically reduce accidents. This improves a machine or other product's overall safety record and adds to a company's bottom line by reducing product liability litigation and insurance costs.
  2. If poorly designed, needed safety communication does not take place and this can lead to accidents that cause injuries. When such accidents happen, companies spend hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars settling or fighting lawsuits because their products lacked "adequate warnings."

With the rise in product liability litigation based on "failure to warn" over the past several decades, product safety labels have become a leading focal point in lawsuits faced by capital equipment manufacturers. Key best practices are shaping the current state-of-the-art for product safety label design. This information can help a machine design engineer, risk manager, or in-house legal counsel formulate an improved safety label strategy that will better protect product users from harm and companies from litigation-related losses. [subhead]

Tool number one: The standards

As a manufacturer, you know that your legal obligation is to meet or exceed the most recent versions of standards related to your product at the time it is sold into the marketplace. Warning label standards are the first place you must turn when it comes to defining your product safety labels. Up until 1991, there was no overarching, multi-industry standard in the U.S. (or in the world, for that matter) which gave definitive guidance on the proper formatting and content for on-product warnings. That changed nationally with the publication of the ANSI Z535.4 Standard for Product Safety Signs and Labels in 1991, and internationally with the publication of ISO 3864-2 Design Principles for Product Safety Labels in 2004. The design principles in these standards provide a starting place for both the content and format choices for product safety labels. Note that both of these standards are revised every five years or so, and it's important to be aware of the nuances that would make one format more appropriate for any particular product.

Figures 1A and 1B: The ANSI Z535.4 and ISO 3864-2 product safety label standards. Courtesy: Clarion Safety SystemsFigures 1A and 1B: The ANSI Z535.4 and ISO 3864-2 product safety label standards. Courtesy: Clarion Safety Systems

Tool number two: Risk assessment

From an engineering perspective, your job is to identify potential hazards and then determine if they need to be designed out, guarded, or warned about. From a legal perspective, your job is to define what hazards are "reasonably foreseeable" and "reasonable" ways to mitigate risks associated with hazards that cannot be designed out. Here is where risk assessment comes into play.

In today's world, a product is expected to be designed with safety in mind. The risk assessment process helps accomplish this task. At its most basic level, risk assessment involves considering the probability and severity of outcomes that can result from potentially hazardous situations. After identifying the potential hazards related to a product at every point in its lifecycle, consider various strategies to either eliminate or reduce the risk of people interacting with these hazards.

The best practice risk assessment standards that exist today (such as ANSI Z10, ANSI B11, ISO 31000, ISO 31010) provide a process to use to quantify and reduce risks. Using these standards as the basis for a formalized risk assessment process will help develop better safety labels and a safer product, and will provide documentation that will help show the world the company is safety-conscious, using the latest standards-based technology to reduce risks. This will be highly important should there be product liability litigation down the road.

Figure 2: A typical risk assessment scoring matrix (based on MIL STD 882 as defined in ANSI B11/ISO 12100 Safety of Machinery – Risk Assessment Annex D). Courtesy: Clarion Safety Systems

Tool number three: Global warnings that use symbols

A large number of machinery manufacturers sell products around the globe, and when this is the case, compliance with global standards is a requirement. The ANSI Z535.4 and ISO 3864-2 product safety label standards, and the European Union (EU) Machinery Directive, place an emphasis on using well-designed symbols on machinery safety labels so information can be conveyed across language barriers. Adding symbols also increases labels' noticeability. The use of symbols to convey safety is becoming commonplace worldwide, and not taking advantage of this new visual language risks making a product's safety labels obsolete and noncompliant with local, regional, and international codes.

It should be noted that sometimes symbols alone cannot convey complex safety messages. In these cases, text is often still used. When shipping to non-English-speaking countries, the trend today is to translate the text into the language of the country in which the machine is sold. Digital print technology makes this solution much more cost-effective and efficient than in the past.

Figure 3: A typical Clarion machine safety label that uses an internationally formatted graphical symbol and a format that meets both ANSI Z535.4 and ISO 3864-2 design principles. Clarion Safety Systems has a copyright on the label design. Courtesy: Clarion Safety Systems

Lower risk, save lives, avoid litigation

The safety labels that appear on your products are one of its most visible components. If they do not meet current standards, if they are not designed as the result of a risk assessment, and if they don't incorporate well-designed graphical symbols, a company risks litigation and nonconformance with market requirements. Most importantly, those who interact with the machinery may be at greater risk of harm. Making sure product safety signs and labels are up-to-date is an important task for every engineer responsible for a machine's design.

For more information on effective product safety labeling, visit the Clarion Safety Systems' website.

About the Author

Geoffrey Peckham is CEO of Clarion Safety Systems, the leading designer and manufacturer of product safety labels that serve the needs of over 180 equipment manufacturing industries worldwide. Peckham's background includes more than two decades of experience in actively advancing safety communication. He has led and continues to lead both the U.S. and international efforts to harmonize standards in the area of safety signs, labels, and markings; this includes contributing to the leadership and direction of ANSI, ISO, OSHA, and NFPA safety codes. Peckham currently chairs both the ANSI Z535 Committee for Safety Signs and Colors and the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO Technical Committee 145 - Graphical Symbols. He is also a member of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO Project Committee 283 - Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.

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