Sign writer legal issues

A sign writer works on a new sign

What licences does a sign maker need?

There are no specific licences that you will need to work as a sign maker, so if your activities are going to fall within the usual range of services offered by this type of business you may not need to do anything further. However, there are some related activities that may apply to your business and that do require a licence or registration. You might also decide to gain voluntary certification.

Transporting waste

You will need to register as a lower tier waste carrier (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) or a professional collector or transporter of waste (Scotland) if you carry away waste that you generate in the course of a sign writing job. Registration is free of charge and lasts indefinitely. (If you carry away any construction waste, you'll need an upper tier waste carrier registration - waste carrier registration in Scotland - which lasts for three years and costs around £150.)

Waste carrier registration is carried out by:

  • the Environment Agency in England
  • Natural Resources Wales
  • the Scottish Environment Protection Agency
  • the Northern Ireland Environment Agency

Data protection

Any business which operates a CCTV system may need to register as a data user with the Information Commissioner's Office. From May 2018 the General Data Protection Regulation has introduced additional protection for personal data. You can contact the ICO, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF - or visit their website for more information.

Voluntary certification

Many would-be customers will want to satisfy themselves that your business does good quality work using suitable materials. If your sign making and installation activities are likely to involve work on construction site then you may want to consider participating in the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS). In some cases a building contractor may require you and your employees to show a valid CSCS card before you are given access to a site. For more information, visit the CSCS website.

A similar scheme - the Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS) - exists for operators of elevating 'cherry picker' platforms and other construction plant. More information about the CPCS is available on the CITB website.

The British Standards Institution (BSI) administers several standards that are relevant for sign makers, particularly those who make and install electrical signs (for example backlit panels and neon). Since July 2013, fixed vertical road signs must conform to British Standard EN 12899 and since July 2014 certain signs (those that are not totally unique and intended for a one-off single use) must be CE marked and conform to EN1090. The BSI also administers the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards. For more information visit the BSI website.

If you're a member of the International Sign Association you are required to follow British Standard BS559 that covers all signs apart from road signs, safety signs and fire safety signs.


Some signs, such as road signs, must conform to British Standards or European Standards (EN) while for others the standards are recommended but not mandatory. The main industry standard is BS559 that covers all signs apart from road signs, safety signs and fire safety signs. Members of the International Sign Association are required to adhere to this standard as a condition of membership.

Sign buyers' obligations

Once installed, the responsibility for maintaining a sign rests with the sign's owner. Various pieces of legislation require them to carry out periodic maintenance and inspection to make sure that the sign doesn't pose a risk to health. Although a sign maker isn't obliged to provide a maintenance service, they are expected to give advice on how a sign should be maintained and inspected.

The International Sign Association publishes useful guidance on the various legal obligations that is available on the International Sign Association website.

Planning permission

Although planning regulations that cover signs do not directly affect you, it may be a good idea for you to be familiar with them so you can give advice to your customers. While some signs and advertisements always need planning permission, there are others that either don't require it as long as certain conditions are met or are covered by 'deemed consent'. There is further guidance on the planning system on the Planning Portal website and the International Sign Association Technical Guidelines also have guidance on the planning regulations that control advertisements. Members of the International Sign Association can download Guidelines from the International Sign Association website.

Electrical safety

There are several important pieces of legislation which apply to sign makers who build and install electrically operated signs (for example back-lit panels, neon signs and revolving signs). Key issues covered by legislation are, briefly, as follows:

  • compliance with electrical safety requirements
  • prevention of electromagnetic disturbance

The Electrical Contractors Association (ECA) and the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting (NICEIC) are good starting points for finding out more information about electrical safety. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) produces information about the requirements of its Wiring Regulations. You can find out more from their website.

Health & safety, fire

The Health and Safety at Work Act and the numerous regulations made under it cover all aspects of workplace health and safety. Employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety at work of all their employees. Those with five or more employees must prepare a written health and safety policy statement. Some key areas where health and safety regulations affect your business, particularly if you employ staff, include:

  • working at height (the Work at Height Regulations apply to both employers and self-employed workers)
  • lifting heavy items
  • working with potentially hazardous materials and substances (such as solvent-based paints)
  • use of electrical equipment (power tools and so on)
  • use of drilling and cutting equipment
  • access to first aid equipment
  • adequate provision and use of protective clothing and equipment
  • reporting of any accidents and injuries at work

Health and safety legislation requires operators of machinery like high-rise 'cherry picker' platforms to be properly trained and qualified. Skills registration card schemes like the Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS) run by the CITB enable employers to show that their plant operators are properly qualified. You can find out more about the CPCS on the CITB website.

You must also make sure that you comply with work place health and safety and fire safety legislation.

Copyright matters

Copyright legislation protects your original designs and prevents you from using other people's designs without their authorisation. In many cases you may be prepared to assign your rights in your original work to your client. This is something to be agreed between you and your client and should be clearly set out in any contract. If you have employees you should make clear in their contract of employment that the copyright of any work they produce belongs to you as their employer.

Note that where registered trademarks are included on signs the authorisation of the trademark owner is required.

You should familiarise yourself with the law so that you are aware of your own and others' rights. Sound knowledge of copyright and trademark law will also help you to give good advice to your clients. Visit the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) section of the website for detailed guidance on intellectual property and copyright issues.

Hazardous substances

  • the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations cover the storage and use of products such as paint, varnish, glue, solvents and lacquer
  • The Environmental Protection Act and regulations made under it (particularly the Hazardous Waste Regulations) apply to the disposal of the above types of product (for example waste solvents that have been used for cleaning painting equipment)

Your local environmental health department will be able to advise you on how the above legislation affects your business.

Further information and guidance leaflets on all aspects of health and safety are available on the HSE and Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) websites.

Employment legislation

Anyone employing staff must comply with employment legislation. Important areas of legislation include:

Recruitment and employment contracts

Pay and pensions

Working time: hours, leave, flexible working

Employment policies

Sickness and sick pay

Maternity, paternity and adoption


Managing home workers, remote workers, lone workers

Discipline and grievance

Dismissals and redundancies

Employment tribunals

Insurance for a sign writer

When you start up in business you will need insurance cover. Contact an insurer and explain to him or her exactly how your business will operate - they will then recommend what cover you should have. This might include:

  • premises, premises contents and stock
  • cash
  • business interruption
  • employer's liability
  • public liability
  • product liability
  • motor insurance (for business vehicles)
  • goods in transit (being collected or delivered)
  • personal cover - accident and injury, loss of earnings and so on

When taking out personal and employer's liability cover it is particularly important to give precise details of the types of activity that you and any staff will be engaging in. Be prepared to answer questions about the type of work you will be doing, where you will be working, the type of materials and equipment you will be using, the height at which you will be working, your health and safety policy and so on.

Members of the International Sign Association can take advantage of an insurance package specifically designed to meet the needs of sign makers. You can find out more on the International Sign Association website.

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