New Signs: The Key to Communicating Safety in Buildings


New Signs: The Key to Communicating Safety in Buildings

By Geoffrey Peckham, President, Clarion Safety Systems, Subcommittee Chair - ANSI Z535.2 Standard for Environmental and Facility Safety Signs

There is a new language of safety signage that architects should understand and use throughout structures worldwide. Standardized graphical symbols, colors, and markings communicate critical safety-related information on signs that are strategically placed in the environment, both internal and external to buildings.

For the past decade, the international committee in charge of graphical symbols and safety signs, ISO/TC 145, has worked to develop standards to universalize the symbols used in public information signs, safety signs, and symbols for use on equipment to indicate its function or control. These symbol standards are the basis for building codes and national standards. In the past year the key U.S. standards relative to safety signage have adopted ISO symbols with the clear intention that they be used throughout the country to improve safety. The following article will explore these developments in detail so architects and those responsible for facility safety can bring their buildings into compliance with the new standards.

Post 9/11 and Post Katrina - A New World Demanding New Evacuation Solutions
September 11, 2001, produced new expectations for personal safety and security in the United States. Safety systems in place prior to that date are often no longer viewed as acceptable. In September 2005, the 9/11 Commission, chaired by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), published its final report.1 Thirty-two recommendations geared to improving the safety in buildings appear at the end of the report. Number 28 reads: “NIST recommends that egress systems be designed ... with consistent layouts, standard signage, and guidance so that systems become intuitive and obvious to building occupants during evacuations. ... Egress systems should have consistent layouts and standard signage and guidance so that the systems become intuitive and obvious to all building occupants, including visitors, during evacuations.”2

Standardized Signage
The final report on the Katrina disaster, issued by the U.S. government’s The Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, was an indictment of the country’s emergency preparedness. Planning was one of the major elements found most lacking.

Standardized, easily recognizable safety signage is an essential part of evacuation planning.

ISO Standards for Signage Provide the Starting Point
The first place to look to satisfy NIST recommendations for standardized signage is the international standards. The Organization of International Standardization (ISO) has had standards in this area for close to 30 years, but it was not until 1995 that the ISO technical committee in charge of graphical symbols (TC 145) began its work and safety symbol standardization began in earnest. Initially spurred on by the European Community’s consolidation in the mid-1990s and its need for common workplace and public area signage, the standards that have been developed over the past 10 years have been written by a committee with 15 nations actively participating in the effort and another 31 nations observing. The result of ISO/TC 145’s work is a base set of standards for the design and use of safety signs that is now being implemented worldwide. The following are the ISO standards relevant to this topic.

ISO 3864 Graphical Symbols - Safety Colours and Safety Signs
Part 1: Design principles for safety signs in workplaces and public areas

In 2002, ISO 3864-1 was published (a revision of a standard first published in 1984). The introduction includes language on the need for using as few words as possible to convey information.

ISO 3864-1 sets the rules for the color and shape of safety signage as well as how to incorporate text and formulas for viewing distance/sign size. The “vocabulary” of color and shape defined in this standard is both elegant and simple:

  • Warning signs consist of a yellow triangle with a black outer band, containing a black graphical symbol. These signs are intended to warn people of hazards.
  • Prohibition signs consist of a prohibition surround shape (red circular band with a red slash going from the upper left to the lower right) over the top of a black graphical symbol.
  • Mandatory action signs consist of a blue circle with a white graphical symbol. These signs are intended to instruct people about actions they must take to avoid a hazard.
  • Safe condition/emergency equipment signs consist of a
  • green rectangle with a white graphical symbol.
  • Fire-safety signs consist of a red rectangle with a white
  • graphical symbol that includes the standardized flames “determinative” element.

In all of the previous signs, text can be added below or beside the sign to explain and/or elaborate on the safety message intended to be conveyed by the safety sign.

Figure 1: ISO flames determinative element

ISO 7010 Graphical Symbols -Safety Colours and Safety Signs
Safety signs used in workplaces and public areas
This standard is the collection document that assembles and disseminates the standardized safety signs established in ISO that are consistent with the principles set forth in ISO 3864. First published in 2003, it is in a state of continual revision as new symbols are added in subsequent addendums. At present, ISO 7010 is only available as a published standard, in both paper and electronic formats, either of which can be purchased in the United States from IHS Global Engineering Documents (

ISO 16069 Graphical Symbols - Safety Way Guidance Systems - 2003
The need for universal exit path marking systems in buildings to lead people to safety was deemed by ISO/TC 145 in 1997 as one of the most critical applications for standardized signage. For 6 years a multidisciplinary committee of the world’s experts in evacuation systems and graphical symbols met several times a year to develop ISO 16069. The result, published in 2003, is a standard that sets forth the basic principles for designing egress path marking systems for buildings. Its well-defined components and concepts include:

  • Directional way guidance signs
  • Continuous guidance lines
  • Step markings
  • Handrail markings
  • Door signs and perimeter markings
  • High, intermediate, and low location placement
  • Luminance performance criteria for photoluminescent materials

The signs defined in ISO 16069 use the symbols found in ISO 7010 and the sign design criteria presented in ISO 3864. A series of informational figures is shown in ISO 16069 to illustrate how the standard’s concepts are used.

Figure 2 Examples of ISO 7010 fire safety and egress symbols

ISO 17398 Graphical Symbols - Test Methods - 2003
The development of a materials test method standard took place simultaneously with the writing of ISO 3864 and ISO 16069. The standard that was created, ISO 17398, is used by those responsible for specifying a sign’s performance characteristics relative to the environmental/performance requirements dictated by the application. ISO 17398 is also used by the manufacturers of safety signs to specify their products’ performance characteristics. As such, this standard is playing a critical role in the updating of the world’s safety signage because it gives a common ground of material categorization that can be used by subsequent standards-writing bodies to specify minimum safety sign performance characteristics. It lends confidence to the subsequent purchase of the products used to fulfill these standards.

Grafting ISO Symbols and Marking Systems into U.S. Standards
As chairman of the U.S. delegation to the ISO/TC 145 since 1996, my role has been to ensure, as much as possible, that the most critical principles embodied in U.S. safety sign and graphical symbol standards were adopted by ISO and, once this was accomplished, to do the reverse where appropriate. The ISO standards mentioned previously were all completed between 2002 and 2003 and, in effect, they are changing the face of safety signage throughout the world. In the United States the past 3 years have seen an intensive effort to develop safety sign standards that are in harmony with these ISO standards. The following are the major developments that have taken place.

NFPA 170 Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols - 2006
With the major ISO standards completed, the adoption of the ISO principles and graphical symbols into U.S. standards began with the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 170 Standard for Fire Safety Symbols. This standard’s 2002 edition included some crude renditions of the ISO egress symbol and directional arrow but did not give guidance on how the symbols should be used for directional way guidance. Proposals for international harmonization were accepted in 2004 for the next revision and published in November 2005 with a 2006 edition date. The 2006 edition of NFPA 170 included the following important changes:

  1. Replacing the existing egress and arrow symbols with the exact ISO 7010 versions of these symbols.
  2. The addition of figures showing the use of the ISO arrow with the ISO egress symbol for all eight directional signs.
  3. The adoption of the ISO fire safety signs as the U.S. safety symbols for fire alarm, fire hose, fire phone, and fire extinguisher. These signs are intended to be posted in facilities to indicate the location of this equipment, replacing existing signage.
  4. The adoption of a national sign for the location of AED devices so they can be quickly located.
  5. The adoption of the Department of Homeland Security’s symbols for use on disaster planning/occurrence maps.
  6. The title of the standard was also changed from NFPA 170 Standard for Fire Safety Symbols to NFPA 170 Fire and Emergency Symbols, a title that better reflected its new scope.

Figure 3 A typical illustration from ISO 16069 showing use of egress path markings in a corridor

Figure 4: NFPA 170, the U.S. national standard for fire safety and emergency symbols

Figure 5: The new NFPA 170-2006 fire equipment,emergency exit, and AED symbols

NFPA 170 is the reference cited by the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code as the source for the proper symbols for marking means of egress.3 NFPA 101, in turn, is cited by the majority of state and national building codes that are enforceable by local and state laws by building inspectors, fire departments, and other “authorities having jurisdiction.” It is within this chain of standards-based codes backed up by legal authority that the ISO safety signs for fire safety and emergency egress have become official U.S. safety signs. Thus, though it had been a relatively obscure standard prior to 2006, it has risen to a level of prominence as the NIST WTC report and the Katrina report call for better evacuation planning and egress systems throughout the country.

Figure 6 NFPA 170-2006, examples showing the use of directional arrows

ANSI Z535.3 Criteria for Safety Symbols - 2006
The American National Standards Institute’s Z535.3 Criteria for Safety Symbol standard is revised every 5 to 6 years. In 2005 the ANSI Z535 committee agreed that the 2006 revision of this standard should contain the ISO fire safety and emergency symbols, the same symbols contained in the NFPA 170 standard. The ANSI Z535.3 standard is slated for publication later this year and will serve to reinforce the country’s move toward international harmonization in the field of safety symbols.

One important fact that should not be overlooked is that the ANSI Z535 precursors, the Z35 and Z53 standards, were the basis documents for the OSHA 1910.144 regulation for safety signs in the workplace written in the 1970s. Thus, OSHA deems compliance with the latest version of the basis documents (the Z535 standards) to be a de minimus situation whereby OSHA accepts the new signage. It is in this way that OSHA regulations stay current with advancements in the standards, keeping pace with new technologies.

The First Major Use of the New U.S. Sign Technology - New York City
The major result of the New York City buildings department’s World Trade Center Taskforce (a panel of experts appointed by the NYC mayor) was a set of 21 recommendations to the city council to amend the city’s building code to make high-rise commercial buildings safer ( In June 2004, the council unanimously voted to adopt Local Law 26. The first of the new requirements to be promulgated by the city’s Department of Buildings was the mandatory installation of photoluminescent directional way guidance systems in the stairwells of all Class-E commercial buildings over 75 feet tall. Deadline for completion of this requirement is July 1, 2006.

Figure 7: NYC installation showing photoluminescent wall demarcation line, directional guidance sign, step L markers, and handrail marking.

The buildings department could have invented its own version of what signs and markings should be used to safely lead people out of buildings. But it did not. Instead it turned to ISO 7010 for the egress symbols and directional arrows and utilized the configurations as described in the then soon-to-be-published NFPA 170 standard for how these symbols should be used to present directional information to the occupants of buildings. The buildings department’s standard, Reference Standard 6-1, also then closely follows the concepts presented in ISO 16069 for positioning the markings and uses the luminance test method found in ISO 17398 for establishing the minimum luminance performance criteria acceptable for photoluminescent products to meet the code. It should be noted that the buildings department actually developed two standards: one for new buildings and one for existing buildings whose plans were approved prior to July 1, 2006. Note that the safety way guidance systems presented in RS 6-1 are examined in-depth in the December 2005 issue of ARCHI-TECH magazine’s AIA/CES article Photoluminescent Directional Egress Path Marking Systems - A New Benchmark for Evacuation Safety, also available online at These systems are currently being installed in New York to meet the mandatory deadline and all indications are that the majority of installations are going exceptionally well.

Figure 8:
NYC installation showing photoluminescent wall demarcation line transitioning to floor and across door, obstacle markings on pipes, top step marking, directional guidance sign, step L markers, and handrail marking.

Egress Markings and the International Building Code
In 2005 the International Code Council formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Terrorism Resistant Buildings. In March 2006 this committee submitted its recommendations for improvements that should be made in the International Building Code with regards to safety and high-rise buildings. The purpose of this committee was to take seriously the recommendations made by the NIST WTC Taskforce’s report and, in so doing, take the necessary steps to implement proven safety technology nationwide. The proposed changes, to be made public in July 2006, include the use of photoluminescent exit path markings in stairwells in a manner that closely follows the NYC Building Code’s requirement for these markings in new buildings. And it does so for ALL buildings over 75 feet tall, not just commercial buildings.

ISO/ANSI/NFPA Standardization
The net effect of having the NFPA and ANSI standards adopt the ISO symbols for fire safety and egress path directional guidance and for the NYC Department of Buildings to fully embrace the egress path marking systems in their building code is that the country’s national standard for such signage is now the international symbol-based ISO signs. This development fulfills the need described in NIST’s 9/11 report for “standardized signs” to assist people in intuitively recognizing the direction along egress routes as well as the location of critical fire-safety equipment. The ICC’s own committee’s initiative solidifies the acceptance of standardized egress path markings in buildings. Thus, with the ICC and New York City having taken the necessary steps to implement the international egress marking system in the stairwells of all high-rise structures, predictions are that this technology will soon make its way into other state and local metropolitan building codes. The range of application of this technology is not limited to commercial high-rise buildings - residential high-rise buildings, hotels, hospitals, sports arenas, areas of public assembly - these systems can be used in practically any location where safety and emergency egress are of concern.

The bar for safety has risen. The integrity of the new sign and marking systems is here; they are being successfully installed and they are economical. As such, building owners, architects, and code-writing authorities should seriously consider adopting these sign and marking systems not only for the sake of building occupants but also because not choosing them could lead to liability issues related to the failure to adequately plan. The next in this author’s series of AIA/Continuing Education Series will take an in-depth look at new standards related to emergency action plans and the procedures and standardized signage that will be essential in the effort to train building occupants on how to safely evacuate.

Figure 9: NYC installation with lights off showing photoluminescent markings on steps, handrails, and around the perimeter of the landing

Geoffrey Peckham is president of Jalite USA. He chaired the New York City expert panel that in 2004 gave the New York City Department of Buildings the recommendation that served as the basis for RS 6-1. New York City Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster subsequently appointed him to the city’s 10-member task force that reviewed RS 6-1 prior to its publication.

Since 1995, Mr. Peckham has served as the chair of the American National Standards Institute’s U.S.TAG to ISO/TC 145, the international committee in charge of safety signs and markings. He has also been a member of the ANSI Z535 Committee on Safety Signs and Colors since 1992 and has chaired the ANSI Z535.1 Safety Color Code subcommittee since 1994.


  1. Available at
  2. NIST NCSTAR 1 WTC Investigation, Final Report on the Collapse of the World Trade Center Towers,
    p. 216-217
  3. NFPA Life Safety Code 2003, section A.7.10.3

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