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Signage and Lables

By: Dr. Arthur H. Mittelstaedt, Jr., LASN associate editor, and Ed.D Mr. RolfHuber

Relevant signs should be at the entrance to all playgrounds regarding apparatuses and the intended age level. Age range labels/signs are information types and without the words "danger," "caution," or "warning."

Since biblical times it has been incumbent upon man to warn of impending dangers. Ezekiel 33 infers that man must be a watchman for his fellow man. The one that does not warn will suffer at the hands of others. Caveat emptor, "Let the buyer beware," has paralleled this doctrine. However, the child is neither a buyer nor seller and, therefore, should be afforded a greater degree of protection than either.

Signage has become something of an ethical responsibility in our society. Signs and symbols often convey important information and a variety of systems have been formulated. Those of increasing use are based upon ISO (International Organization for Standardization) in Geneva and ANSI (American National Standard Institute) in New York and the Canadian Standards Association in Canada and its Canadian Playground Advisory. These signs contain symbols and colors of green, red, yellow and blue, which are internationally recognized; others are becoming universally accepted throughout the services and products offered in the United States.

Playgrounds, of course, have potential for liability. Organizations, such as the Recreation Safety Institute, have developed signage for use in a wide range of play facilities.

In playgrounds over the years, signage has been focused on "welcome" or "have fun" type of signs placed at the entrance to playgrounds. As the theory or duties to warn have become an issue in litigation, attention has now focused on what type of signs should be provided in playgrounds.

The use of standardized warning formats, i.e. those that are in common usage, increases the likelihood that the warning will be seen, promotes rapid recognition and surer adherence. The teeter-totter lets drivers know there's a playground very near.

Pictorials can rapidly communicate the presence of a hazard or appropriate action. However, pictorial symbols can be confused, uncertain, or, in the worse case, convey the opposite of the intention.

New, never tried warnings need to be carefully tested for meaning, recognition and potentially dangerous misinterpretation. The use of focus group interviews or other relatively simple market testing methods would be appropriate for the evaluation of new warnings. At the very least, a new sign should be shown to a representative sample of unsophisticated users or spectators (20 or more) for comment to ensure the intended meaning is communicated and dangerous reversals of meaning do not occur. Clearly, if even one dangerous misinterpretation in a group of 20 were discovered, the design is flawed.

In summary, warnings are required when hazards continue to exist despite the design and engineering and other efforts to either eliminate or reduce the injury potential. Playground hazards and equipment/surface should be systematically evaluated to determine the likely candidates for warnings. Warnings should be developed in standardized formats to promote rapid recognition and sure adherence. Mechanically, warnings should be legible, understandable, serious in tone and durable. Warnings should be tested and reeevaluated. Well-designed, carefully thought-out warnings can add considerable safety as they will control the critical behavioral element involved in every facility related injury.

Relevant signs should be at the entrance to all playgrounds regarding apparatuses and the intended age level. Age range labels/signs are information types and are in blue, without the words "danger," "caution," or "warning."

Safety markings and signs represent one of the most important means of communicating with the playground users, guardians or supervisors. Safety markings are particularly important in situations where guests or other infrequent playground users are involved. Markings are used to communicate critical safety information regarding the inherent dangerous and hazardous conditions.

The existence of so called "open and obvious" hazards should not necessarily lead one to the conclusion that warnings are not needed, since focusing the attention of people on hazards with which they are already familiar can prevent injuries.

Warning signs must be durable, legible, illuminated, in large type, unambiguous, serious, and in simple language.

All safety markings on the equipment or surface material (i.e., non-loose fill) of the playground should be installed during construction, not after the playground has been installed or in operation for several weeks as is often the case.

All safety markings should be on the equipment. Materials must meet local board of health regulations and the standards of ASTM and/or other standards organizations for the respective products. Such labels should be appropriately attached by the playground inspector as to the compliance of the playground to the standards at the time of its inspection or testing. This will provide current state of the playground information and account ability on the part of the inspector as to the completeness of the inspection.

All play area warnings convey a potential threat to the child's well-being posed by dangerous conditions/situations and seek to change behavior, i.e., remind the child to act safely.

It's foreseeable that children may be injured when they act in a certain way. Studies show that when physical safety measures cannot be provided, then warnings to notify, control and remind those who are in danger are required. The existence of so called "open and obvious" hazards should not necessarily lead one to the conclusion that warnings are not needed, since focusing the attention of people on hazards with which they are already familiar can prevent injuries. Warnings must be provided when known hazards remain as integral features of the play environment and human exposure to these hazards is possible despite design efforts aimed at identifying and removing the hazards or reducing or eliminating the exposure.

Warnings cannot be used to make up for inadequacies in design. Even the best of warnings cannot consistently modify the behavior of all people at all times. Warnings are, in a sense, the last resort if danger still exists and has not otherwise been eliminated. A good warning can stop people from doing what they otherwise would have, but may prompt others to do something they otherwise would not. Such changes in behavior are relatively difficult to bring about and require that many of the techniques of the perceptual, motivational, learning and marketing sciences be employed if a warning is to be effective.

Pictorials present an opportunity to rapidly communicate the presence of a hazard or a behaviorally appropriate action to the user in support of the written language.

Warnings Require an Analysis

An inventory of hazards needs to be systematically compiled and revised as appropriate by the designer, manufacturers, owners and maintainers of playground facilities. Physical hazards, behavioral hazards--horse play, running, unauthorized after hours use--must be identified and analyzed. It is recommended that a formal, written, analysis be prepared for each hazard unique to the planned playground. Alongside each entry, the person performing the warnings requirements analysis should identify possible methods for eliminating or reducing the injurious conditions of the hazard or guarding the hazard from human contact. Those hazards which remain on the list and cannot be eliminated, reduced, or mitigated are candidates for warnings. Each must be evaluated to determine whether a warning might work or if further effort can be made to eliminate, reduce or guard the hazard.

Those hazards which survive this screening must then be evaluated with respect to the intensity of the threat presented to the facility user. Warnings must be provided for all serious hazards, the less obvious the hazard, the more compelling the need to warn. On the other hand, the so called "obvious" hazards may not be obvious to everyone and certainly those that present a serious possibility of harm should be considered for reminder warnings. In general, if it is possible to anticipate that a warning would prevent an injury, it is appropriate to provide that warning. Warnings are necessary for important hazards because, as a society, people have come to depend upon the fact that hazards are now most always marked and that if no markings exist, the situation is safe.

Warnings that successfully communicate a message and warnings that cause people to act safety have in common the following important characteristics:

  • Distinctive colors and shapes.
  • Use of familiar signal words (DANGER, WARNING and CAUTION)
  • Effective warnings are physically located in close proximity to the hazard.
  • Effective signs are placed at the average adult's eye level and toward the direction of approach.

Effective warnings clearly and concisely tell how to avoid being hurt.

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December 10, 2019, 7:59 pm PDT

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