Safety Posters Through the Ages – A Short History

Written by: Sam Hancock

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Workplace safety is everyone’s responsibility, but it never hurts to have handy reminders around the job site, whether it’s construction, health care or an office. One of the most effective and convenient ways to communicate workplace safety is with posters.

While we’ve been working since humans first stood upright, the safety poster didn’t enter the workplace until the mid-1800s once the Industrial Revolution was underway. The first World’s Fair in 1851 celebrated the rise of the machine age with exhibits dedicated to innovation and progress at work and at home. With workers migrating from the farm to the factory, labour became more and more reliant on machinery. More machinery meant more accidents.

AN EXPLOSION OF WORK

As the Industrial Revolution got into full swing, the issue of worker safety quickly followed.  Early posters relied heavily on text, and often focused on rules of behavior in the workplace, including union meetings, breaks and smoking rather than safety procedures.

However, most workers in the Industrial Revolution came from the lower classes, and at that time had a very low literacy rate. Eventually, text-heavy posters made way for visual posters that packed a more emotional punch. Posters often showed the worst-case scenario—electrocution, dismemberment and death —and promoting fear to encourage safety became the standard.

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“Open the doors and windows before you start the motor” (1925)

GRAPHIC IMAGERY BY DESIGN

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Graphic design has changed over the years. For example, the early 1900s posters depicted workplace dangers as anthropomorphized – carbon monoxide was a large brutish ghost that could choke a man. Safety posters inspired fear with realistic-looking violent monsters, devils, and animals. As Cubism, Futurism and the other mid-century -ism movements took centre stage in the art world, danger was now shown as an abstract figure in safety posters, with the emphasis, such as scraps of steel – or swarf – shown as a snarling guard dog, straining at its leash.

WOMEN AT WORK

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Up until World War II, most posters focused on men in the workplace, with women starring in home safety posters and materials. However, once women started playing a bigger role in the workplace in the 1930s and 1940s, they started appearing in more workplace safety posters. “Jenny on the Job” is a series of WW2-era safety posters designed specifically for women working during the war.

In this series, the posters reflect women’s important role during wartime, but only three posters depict actual workplace safety tips. The rest reflect the typical mid-century attitude towards gender roles. The posters make it clear - while it was necessary for women to work, they shouldn’t forget their womanly duties too. They suggested in a very paternalistic manner that despite doing a man’s job, Jenny still needs her beauty sleep, fancy fashions, and a reminder to shower regularly.

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Plus, who’s going to clean up that filthy pigsty of a bathroom? Jenny, obviously.

 

As more and more women entered the workplace after the war, posters continued to reflect a slightly patronizing tone towards women, as exemplified in this image of a women’s long locks getting tangled in a drill press, suggesting that women are more concerned with beauty than safety.

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MODERN SAFETY POSTERS

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Today’s posters focus on more positive messages – “Wear hard hats in this area” and “Hold the handrail” for example – versus earlier fear-mongering posters that emphasized what could happen should you fail to follow the rules. Not only do they focus on the physical dangers at work, they also shine a spotlight on mental health at work, which is just as important as your physical health.

Who knew health and safety posters at work had such a rich history? The design of these posters reflects the concerns of the era they were created, and are a great way to explore the history of work.

LEARN MORE

Curiosity piqued? Here are two interesting collections of historical workplace safety posters to peruse:

http://50watts.com/Vintage-Safety

http://www.historyextra.com/rospa