International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) – Fire Signs

If persons are trapped in a burning building they are likely to be under significant psychological and even physical stress. Successful evacuation is partly dependent on equipment, such as means of escape, and partly on communication processes, perception, conceptualisation, understanding, evaluation and decision.

Identifying the escape route is fundamental in ensuring safe egress. Sign designers seeking individual solutions for their customer’s needs, may produce many similar graphical symbols, thereby endangering the common or universal understanding of the graphical symbol delivering an important messages. ISO has centralised the task of standardising graphical symbols for use in safety signs for workplaces and public areas within one subcommittee, ISO/TC145/SC2, which coordinating the work of three groups:

  • WG1, Safety identification, shapes, symbols and colours
  • WG2, Signs, plates and labels
  • WG3, Safety guidance systems

These groups have been charged with the task of achieving a uniform, global system of safety information that relies as little as possible on the use of words to achieve understanding. It stems from recognition that the continued growth in international trade, travel and mobility of labour requires a common method of communicating safety information in order to avoid confusion and prevent accidents.

The international standards for safety signs was produced by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and they provide information for manufactures, designers, retailers and end users.

Lists of relevant standards are;

  • ISO 3864-1:2002 Graphical symbols — Safety colours and safety signs — Part 1: Design principles for safety signs in workplaces and public areas
  • ISO 7010:2003 Graphical symbols — Safety colours and safety signs — Safety signs used in workplaces and public areas
  • ISO 9186-1:2007 Graphical symbols — Test methods — Part 1: Methods for testing comprehensibility
  • ISO 16069:2004 Graphical symbols — Safety signs — Safety way guidance systems (SWGS)
  • ISO 17398:2004 Safety colours and safety signs — Classification, performance and durability of safety signs

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

This standard is principally for sign manufacturers and prescribes the colour/shape of the various basic types of safety signs. Further guidance is given on contrast colours for example the black/yellow striped warning band and two examples for supplementary safety signs. Colorimetric and photometric properties of the materials/boundaries for safety colours are given, and a rudimentary collection of safety signs was provided as examples. This Standard was revised and went into more detail, for example defining dimensions. This ensures that sign manufacturers can easily reproduce safety signs to the exact proportions demanded. The number of signs and supplementary text panel combinations was increased and the colorimetric section revised to take account of latest scientific knowledge.

ISO 7010 Graphical Symbols -Safety Colours and Safety Signs
Safety signs used in workplaces and public areas

Once the basic guidance for shapes and colours had been established, a structural framework existed for ISO 7010, which was published in 2003. This standard begins with an overview of the safety signs and which the countries participating have reached consensus so far. This is followed by five tables, one for each category:

Each table shows all safety signs within its category together with information covering its application and a description of the image content. Additional information is given where this is necessary, for example in the case of the general prohibition sign and the general warning sign. These signs consist of the geometrical shape plus an exclamation mark as the graphical symbol. Each of these signs requires a supplementary sign giving more detailed information about the specific hazard. According to the basic guidance given in ISO 3864 – 1, any safety sign can have a supplementary text, but these must have detailed information.

The standard aims to ensure that, wherever in the world you are, safety signs manufacturers follow the same pattern. It also seeks to give guidance to designers to ensure they achieve overall consistency and, thereby, better universal public recognition. It does not attempt to include every safety sign that carries a graphical symbol, because the sheer numbers developed to cope with particular hazards in specific applications all over the world goes well beyond its scope. The Standard has been deliberately limited to an easy-to-remember set of safety signs with messages that are appropriate for the majority of users, and the palette of safety signs kept small enough for the signs to become part of a common safety ‘sign language’.

ISO 7010 is soon to become PR EN 7010 and entitled – Graphical symbols – Safety colours and safety signs – Safety signs used in workplaces and public areas. Its going from being an international standard, which is essentially a recommendation on best practice, to a European Norm requiring that the contents of the standard is written into a EU countries Law. It will spell the death of a myriad of poor sign designs instead replacing them with a requirement for the same sign in every country for the same requirement. It will mean a fire exit sign in England will be the same as a it would be in France, Spain, anywhere at all in the EU. The so called Euro fire exit sign will be contrary to European standards.

ISO 9186 : 2007 Graphical symbols – Test methods – Part 1: Methods for testing comprehensibility

It specifies methods for testing the comprehensibility of graphical symbols. It includes the method to be used in testing the extent to which a variant of a graphical symbol communicates its intended message and the method to be used in testing which variant of a graphical symbol is judged the most comprehensible.

The purpose is to ensure that graphical symbols, and signs using graphical symbols, are readily understood. The intention is to develop graphical symbols which are correctly understood by users when no supplementary (i.e. explanatory) text is presented. When such a graphical symbol cannot be obtained, it might be necessary to present a graphical symbol together with supplementary text explaining its meaning in the language of the intended users.

ISO 16069 Graphical Symbols – Safety Way Guidance Systems – 2003

This standard brings together the principles of good practice for safety signs and recommendations for safety way guidance systems. This will ensure, through the consistent application of common design principles, people from anywhere in the world will be better able to recognise and follow directional information. As an additional benefit, a standardised safety way guidance system will assist fire fighters and other rescue teams to evacuate occupied areas during emergency situations.

For an escape route to be effective it is important that from anywhere in the building occupants have sight of a sign, or series of signs, which leads them to a place of safety. Moreover, if there is a choice of escape routes, the safety way guidance system should indicate the shortest travel distance. To avoid confusion, all of the signs installed should be of similar style, design, size and format. A uniform approach throughout the building builds confidence and reinforces orientation cues, allowing evacuees to predict where the next sign will be.

In order to communicate safety way guidance information efficiently, across language barriers, the systems defined in this standard incorporate the use of graphical symbols and markings such as arrows. Escape route signs should normally consist of three elements, the internationally recognised graphical symbol for emergency exits, supplementary text (Exit or Fire exit) and a directional arrow.

The standard also contains general principles valid both for electrically powered and for photoluminescence components. However, illumination of escape routes is not part of the safety way guidance system and is therefore not covered. There will be certain situations where emergency escape lighting is not needed and other situations where emergency escape lighting is installed, but smoke is present. In those situations where no emergency escape lighting is present or an installed system has lost its efficiency, a safety way guidance system would be more effective in assisting emergency evacuation.

Where a safety way guidance system uses electrically powered components, the standard recommends that an alternative source of power should be provided in case the main power supply fails. Furthermore the safety way guidance system should be capable of being activated in all risk situations defined by the risk assessments.

For photoluminescence components, including signs, continuous guidance lines, hazard nosing and door frame markings, the standard specifies the minimum luminance and luminance decay characteristics of the material to be used. Significant detail is also contained in annexes to the standard covering sample safety way guidance layouts representing good design practice and the measurement of photoluminescence component performance both in the laboratory and on-site.

ISO 17398 Safety colours and safety signs – Classification, performance and durability of safety signs – 2004

It specifies requirements for a performance-related classification system for safety signs according to expected service environment, principal materials, photometric properties, means of illumination, fixing methods and surface. Performance criteria and test methods are specified so that properties related to durability and expected service life can be characterized and specified at the time of the product’s delivery to the purchaser.

It does not cover electrical power supplies, their components or electrically powered elements. It also does not cover properties of illuminating components, but the photometric properties for the particular types of safety signs are covered.


March 28, 2011[Last updated: February 9, 2022]

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