Warning signs for factories

Angela Wright, colour psychologist, gives an insight into how colour is used to keep people safe.

Warning signs for factories

Warning signs for factories

Colour coding in some industries is a serious business: construction, fire-fighting, health and safety are just a handful of the sectors where signage and other messages are governed by strict laws.

Red for fire

It used to be that each different type of fire had its own colour for the appropriate fire extinguisher: Water – Red, Foam – Cream, Dry Powder – Blue and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) – Black. However, it was obvious that some of the colours of these vital pieces of equipment would not always be readily visible, so in the 1990s the rules changed. Now, all fire extinguishers are bright red and a zone no larger than 5% on each shows the code colour for the type of extinguisher.

Yellow and black for danger

In the manufacturing environment, we find a host of warnings and signals, alerting us to such diverse dangers as Electricity (electric shock, high voltage,) Gas and Explosives, Chemical Stores, Highly Flammable and many more.  In my opinion, the most striking is no doubt the unequivocal “Danger of Death!” with no further explanation. The interesting thing about all of the above is that the warning signs are, without exception, bright warm yellow with heavy black graphics (think tigers, wasps and poisonous toads. This colour combination is basically disharmonious, which has the effect of negating the individual colours; the black looks and feels menacing and the yellow naturally creates anxiety. Perfect. This is another example of humanity instinctively knowing what colours to use when we really need to communicate clearly.

Marking escape routes

In every public building it is a legal requirement that fire exits and escape routes be clearly signposted. I find it interesting that the colours chosen for these signs are mainly green or blue –colours containing a calm, reassuring message – but quite recessive, so we would all be well advised to develop the habit of locating the exits whenever we are in a public building, as they might not be that easy to see in a crisis (especially if the space is filling with smoke).

While this choice of colour coding is the least logical in terms of natural associations, it is also important to clarify that our response to colour is actually 80% unconscious, so colour codes that we encounter regularly over a long period of time will become embedded in the unconscious mind, and achieve the desired effect.

The importance of consistency for safety

However, this should not be read as an invitation for companies to adapt and develop their own safety warnings.  Besides being carefully regulated in most European countries, it is important to ensure consistency throughout working and public environments to create common perceptions of colour coding and messaging.

As a result, for the time being many hospitals and pharmaceuticals firms have decided not to introduce colour coding to support patient care due to a lack of a consistent colour code being available. Their justified fear is that until a standard code is universally adopted, colour signals could actually impede patient care. Let’s hope that this situation can be resolved in the near future, so doctors and patients alike can benefit from the important contribution of colour communication.