As populations diversify across the United States, the need for multilingual safety signs and labels is becoming more necessary and common.

Multilingual signs are important for the safety of workers and the public for whom English is a second language (or who may not even speak English).

For utilities, they can be important as well because they can protect utility companies from litigation in the event of an accident.

The required use and design of multilingual safety and accident prevention signage is often misunderstood and for good reasons.

Let’s clear up some of the confusion.

What is required by code/regulation?

In my experience, the confusion usually arises around ANSI Z535, and the role it plays where multilingual signage is concerned.

As discussed in a previous blog, ANSI Z532.2 Environmental and Facility Safety Signs is a National Standard and does not require compliance until it is incorporated into relevant codes and regulations.

Regardless of whether it stands alone as a voluntary standard or becomes code by inclusion (as it is in the NESC and many OSHA regulations), ANSI Z532.2 does not specify the mandatory use of multilingual sign messages.

It provides no guidance as to the specific criteria needed to determine where it might be considered necessary.

No nationally published codes or regulations in the United States we have researched have other requirements that the hazard messages on safety signs be printed in other than the official language.

Ultimately, it is left up to the posting utility to determine the prevalence of foreign language speakers in their service areas, what second languages are spoken, and if the potential for risk and liability for failure to warn in these languages warrants posting multilingual safety signs.

If uncertain, it may be advisable that the utilities consult their own legal counsel regarding this issue.

ANSI Z535 multilingual specifications and best practice

The guidance that ANSI Z535 provides towards multilingual signage is solely related to graphical design.

Other than specific multilingual layout templates that are advisory, Z535 design elements and guidelines related to multilingual signs are the same as the design rules the standard applies to any safety sign.

These design guidelines include elements such as color, symbols, the structure of the message content, layout format, and character font.

Multilingual sign layouts are generally formatted such that a safety pictogram symbol panel is positioned, so it is clearly associated with and shared by both the first and second language headers and word message panels.

Pictogram symbols

In many instances, there may be several languages that are prevalently spoken. In this case, it may be impractical to post signs in all the relevant languages.

This is where the use of pictogram symbols that better communicate the hazard across language and literacy barriers are strongly encouraged.

Pictogram safety symbols should be used as a supplemental design element that supports the worded message, but that also have the ability to communicate the safety message by themselves.

Pictogram symbols may be used to represent the actual hazard or mandatory and prohibited actions to avoid the hazard.

ANSI Z535.3 Safety Symbols provides guidelines for the development of effective safety symbols.

These include elements of a uniform system of visual communication such as the representation of the human form, objects, shapes, and use of color.

ANSI Z535.3 also presents a method of empirical testing to evaluate candidate safety symbols for effectiveness.

The test includes parameters of statistical evaluation as criteria for acceptance of a symbol as having “demonstrated understandability” while demonstrating a limited tolerance of “critical confusion.”

A common point of confusion is that ANSI has approved pictogram symbols.

It should be clearly understood that ANSI does not approve, recognize, list, or endorse any specific safety symbol pictograms.

The Electromark advantage

Electromark’s team has expert knowledge and experience with the ANSI Z535 safety sign standards, and our art team can design your assets to conform to them.

Electromark uses and has developed many effective pictogram symbols that represent electrical and other hazards.

We’re one of few companies that has developed and copyrighted safety symbol pictograms with demonstrated understandability towards the hazards they are intended to represent.

Below is an example from our Shock in the Box series:

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Let Electromark design your next multilingual sign, or review the multilingual signs you may already use!

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