Warning of the need to standardise the beach safety signage system

Researchers at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) have analysed beach management policy in relation to safety flag systems along the coast of the Bay of Biscay

  • Research

First publication date: 22/03/2023


A study by the UPV/EHU warns that safety flag systems differ even between beaches in close proximity to each other, and that this lack of uniformity may be due to an outdated legal framework and the absence of an agreed system between different organisations. They propose that a specific guide to beach safety flags and signage as part of an agreed national safety plan could be a solution.

Safeguarding bathers should be a priority for institutions to prevent accidents. So, lifeguard services need to have global, understandable tools based, among other things, on adequate signage. Among these tools, beach safety flags are one of the proactive ways of protecting bathers from beach hazards and providing information on safe bathing conditions. 

UPV/EHU lecturers have analysed beach safety flags and their management along the coast of the Bay of Biscay (from Cape Higuer in the Basque Country to Estaca de Bares in Galicia), where there are more than 1,000 small beaches. So the meaning of safety flags and their correct use according to oceanographic and meteorological conditions was observed and studied. The influence of beach safety management and regulations on the use of beach safety signs was also investigated.  

The research distinguishes between general and coastal flags. General flags are fixed flags located at the entrance to the beach and which indicate the safety conditions of the whole beach. Coastal flags, on the other hand, are the ones that can be easily moved and which are positioned along the seashore to specify a danger zone or a particular area where specific activities are allowed or otherwise. 

The findings reveal that safety flag systems “differ even between beaches in very close proximity to each other where safety management is in the hands of different local governments”, as the lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology of Maritime Navigation Imanol Basterrechea pointed out. The authors of the study noticed that there is “uniformity with regard to the meaning and colour of the general flags (green-yellow-red) covered by the 1972 Order (which stipulates the rules and instructions for human safety at bathing locations), which means that the legal regulation works”. By contrast, “there is a lack of uniformity in the colours, shapes and sizes of coastal flags. The information signs at the entrance to the beach are not standardised in terms of symbols and colours. And sometimes there is even double signage that provides contradictory information”, said Dr Basterrechea.  

An outdated, local legal framework and the absence of an agreed system among the various organisations providing lifeguard services seem to be behind this lack of uniformity. “Lifeguards adequately mark danger zones and other areas related to physical distribution. However, different local regulations regarding beach flags and the different requirements and certifications of lifeguards in each region can lead to a lack of safety on certain beaches.”  

The fact that local governments are responsible for beach safety management leads to an imbalance in the human and material resources available to the safety services on each beach. In addition, the existence of different companies or organisations providing lifeguard services and the lack of a global beach safety plan for the whole coastline means that there are different procedures in terms of beach safety flags and signage. In the view of the researcher, “a specific guide to beach safety flags and signage as part of an agreed national safety plan agreed upon by all regional and provincial governments could be a solution”. 

So, he went on to state that “the involvement of all institutions is necessary to achieve a national beach safety plan that coordinates and provides for the management of all beaches, where the colours of the flags and the design of the signage should follow the standards used in the rest of the countries”, and referred to the international standards of the ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) and the ILS (International Life Saving Federation). He added that “beach safety education is necessary to raise awareness among beach users, so that they understand the signage and the dangers. The general public needs to be educated in this respect from nursery school onwards, if possible.” 

Additional information 

This study was carried out by Javier Sánchez-Beaskoetxea and Imanol Basterrechea, lecturers from the UPV/EHU’s Department of Business Structure, and María de las Mercedes Maruri, from the UPV/EHU’s Department of Applied Mathematics. 

Dr Imanol Basterrechea-Iribar, an officer in the Merchant Navy, is a lecturer on the Degree course in Nautical and Maritime Transport at the Faculty of Engineering -Bilbao, and teaches on the University Master's Degree in Nautical and Maritime Transport, for which he is responsible.  

Bibliographic reference