In this article you will learn: Different types of ppe signage and symbols; Why safety symbols were developed; What safety symbols are; PPE symbols and their meanings; The different colours of safety symbols; How to know what PPE to wear in specific workplaces.

Symbols are quite literally everywhere. It’s universally recognised that man and woman graphical symbols mean male and female toilets. Similarly, a disabled sign near a parking space means parking for disabled persons. The red octagon of the stop sign can be recognised from afar. But Health & Safety signs and PPE symbols (or pictograms) are another matter.

And if you need to know about the PPE requirements on site, you'll need to understand the various Health & Safety symbols used in safety signs.

Some of the common, universally recognised symbols are shown below. Have a look around and you’ll see numerous examples - you have definitely seen most of these, if not all of them.

So if everyday symbols are recognisable, what about symbols designed to keep you safe at work? Here’s a quick list of PPE Symbols, signs and pictograms to help you learn what means what - to keep you safe and protected at work or wherever you are.

Why PPE symbols were developed

Before we dive in, let’s explore why the symbols were developed in the first place. Specifications were put in place for PPE symbols to provide some level of standardisation. These are recognised across Europe to keep workers safe.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was founded in 1947 and is a standard-defining body composed of representatives from organisations around the world. ISO headquarters is in Geneva, Switzerland, and works in 162 countries as of March 2017. It is backed by the United Nations and Economic and Social Council.

ISO 3864-2 standards are ISO mandatory symbol labels to inform people of the policies that must be followed. You’ll find these symbols on product identifier labels and data sheets listing the Hazards and the PPE you must wear in order to protect yourself.

Safety symbol colours and their meanings

In any work environment or public space you’ll see a series of colour symbols to depict dangers, warnings, and let you know where to go: red, yellow, blue, and green labels.

The imagery, or pictogram, may vary along with the text, but each sign will communicate the same concept. You may see symbols with a light or darker background, but all graphical symbols will be either white and edged in white, or black and edged in black. The majority of the symbols are common sense and easily indicate the safety measure necessary.

Of course: if in doubt, ask someone.

Red Symbols

Red labels warn of dangers. They are a round shape edged in red with a black pictogram. These labels indicate the behaviour should stop or not start. For example:

Yellow or Amber Symbols

Yellow or Amber labels indicate a warning. They are triangular in shape with a yellow background and black edging. These labels indicate where you’ll need to take precautions. For example:

Green Symbols

Green rectangular or square shapes with a white pictogram and green background indicate emergency escapes, first aid and no danger; these are exit doors and escape routes. For example:

Blue labels

Blue labels - which is the focus of this post from here on in - indicate mandatory actions. You have to complete a specific behaviour or perform a specific action such as washing your hands or wearing personal protective equipment.

They are always round, blue background with a white pictogram and border. For example:

Personal Protective Equipment Workplace Signage

So how do you know what PPE you need to wear in specific workplace environments?

You will see various mandatory PPE signs at entrances, near machinery, at workstations etc. - assuming your workplace is fully compliant with all risk assessments completed, of course. They will be the Blue symbol type which denotes mandatory actions. Take heed, your health and safety is at stake.

Eye protection signs & symbols

Some of the different types of eye protection PPE signs and symbols you'll see around various workplaces are below. Notice 2 main types of eye protection: goggles/glasses and face shields. Sometimes face shields are required as glasses aren't enough protection. This will be shown with a different PPE symbol on the signage. It's also possible googles are provided for specific equipment only so shouldn't be removed from the area. As with all health & safety signage, all actions, orders, warnings etc should be adhered to.

Hearing protection signs & symbols

Examples of hearing protection signs and symbols are below. Notice the consistency in the hearing PPE symbol? It will always look like this but can be accompanied with differing text. The "Danger Noise Hazard" sign is different and is a warning, but would most likely be partnered with the mandatory ear protectors symbol.

You might not realise you're in a high noise environment while no work is being done, but if you're not protecting your hearing as the noise starts, you could do permanent damage. Seeing the ear protectors signage indicates that you should be wearing ear defenders or ear plugs all the time in the area the signage covers.

Hand protection signs & symbols

Examples of hand safety signs and symbols you would find in the workplace are below. Notice the different shapes and text of the signs, but the consistency in the protective gloves symbol. These signs could be used to cover an entire work site, a specific area or just one machine.

Different types of protective gloves would be needed depending on the specific hazards of the workplace. Anything from simple Rigger Gloves to Anti-vibration Gloves or Cut Protection Gloves (and the myriad ratings) could be needed, so it is important to ask the supervisor what gloves are being referred to when you see these signs.

Foot protection signs & symbols

Examples of foot protection signs and symbols you would find in the workplace are below. Notice the different shapes and text of the signs, but the consistency in the protective footwear symbol EXCEPT if specific types of safety footwear is required. In the case below, you'll see the symbol for Anti-static safety footwear alongside the mandatory order text.

Respiratory safety signs & symbols

Examples of respiratory protection signs and symbols you would find in the workplace are below. Over the last few years respiratory protection has become a social issue (no need to explain why here, you know what we mean), so we have included the face coverings signs you will have seen. Although these are still important, it is the "Wear Respirator" signs and symbols you are more likely to see in industry. This usually denotes that specific ratings of mask protection are required - Your common or garden face nappy simply won't do.

Head protection signs & symbols

Examples of mandatory hard hat symbols and signs are below. If you see this, there is likely to be danger from falling objects and a hard hat could save you life so must be worn. There is a good chance you would need to wear a hard hat of a certain colour too - bump caps would not be suitable. Text may vary, but the symbol will always be blue background with a white pictogram.

Protective clothing signs & symbols

Below you can see examples of protective clothing signs and symbols you might find in the workplace. There are many different types of protective clothing for many different hazards, hence the need for different types of symbols and signage.

The term "Protective Clothing" on signage generally relates to coveralls of one type or another as you can see by the symbols used. This could be anything from a simple coverall to protect the wearers clothes right up to a high spec flame retardant, anti-static, arc-flash resistant hi vis coverall. However, high visibility clothing, Hairnets and Life jackets are also considered protective clothing. Depending on the types of risks of the work environment, you may see any of these signs or symbols.

Machine safety signs & symbols

Not exactly PPE, but machinery guards are a necessary part of Health & Safety, so are included in this guide for your information.

Examples of machine safety signs and symbols you may find in the workplace are below. These generally relate to machinery guarding so would often appear alongside other mandatory PPE signage such as eye protection, ear protection, gloves etc.