Largely ignored for decades, water safety signage has, at best, conformed to 1940s guidelines for workplace safety. At worst, it has not conformed to any recognized international or national safety standard at all.

Typical pool facilities post a large text-only list of safety rules, such as a “No Lifeguard on Duty — Swim at Your Own Risk” text-only sign, and a couple of “No Diving” signs.

By adopting rigorous conformity to a system of state-of-the-art visual warnings compliant with the latest standards, safety-conscious operations can better prevent tragedies.

Here are the latest recommendations developed by leading water safety experts, human factors engineers and safety sign design specialists.


  • Communicates messages clearly and concisely. Given the sheer volume of information presented, the commonly used “list of rules” signs actually diminish communication. Human factors experts suggest that people are more apt to obey safety signs when they can clearly understand the hazard, its consequences and how to avoid it.

These are the essential elements of a safety sign’s message as defined by the 2011 ANSI Z535.2 Environmental and Facility Safety Sign Standard, and by U.S. courts as indicated by decisions regarding what constitutes an “adequate” warning.

Signage should clearly explain four major safety messages: no diving (where appropriate); no prolonged breathholding; watch your children; and nonswimmers must wear life jackets. Other statements are superfluous in comparison with these specific safety messages.

  • Incorporates a combination of text and symbols to communicate messages beyond language barriers. Graphic art symbols are the global state-of-the-art method for visually communicating safety because they convey messages at a glance, providing greater immediacy than text-based signs.
  • Reiterates essential warnings by leveraging strategic placement. Next to the sign’s design (its content, layout, colors, size and shape), placement strategy is the most important factor in providing pool users with an “adequate” warning.  First and foremost, human factors experts indicate that to be effective, safety signs must be noticed. Signs that blend into the background are worthless.

Place signs so patrons can view your message in three locations prior to entering the water: at the entrance, in the locker rooms and at poolside, for example. The intention is to inform patrons so accidents don’t happen, but if something does occur, you will be able to say you posted adequate warnings, in terms of design and placement.

About the Instructors

Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., is a renowned aquatic safety expert and founder of the Aquatic Safety Research Group. Griffiths served as director of aquatics and safety officer for athletics at Penn State University for nearly 25 years and has been involved in all phases of aquatics and water safety for 30 years. A published author, he has been named to Aquatics International’s Power 25 list multiple times.      

Geoffrey Peckham chairs the American National Standards Institute’s Standard for Environmental and Facility Safety Signs. For the past 15 years, he has chaired ANSI’s U.S. technical advisory group to ISO/TC 145 (the international ISO standards committee responsible for global safety sign standardization).