The Origins of Biohazard Symbols


Biohazard labels have been around for quite some time now, having been developed to designate or warn about hazardous materials, locations, or objects within the immediate vicinity. They are most often found around nuclear waste, specifically nuclear reactor facilities or weapons of mass destruction. Many of these biohazard signs come in a variety of different colors, backgrounds, borders, or alongside supplemental information that specifies the type of hazard in the surrounding area. Most individuals are familiar with the most traditional sign, which features a circular, black and white symbol. Many also known of the simple skull and crossbones, which is generally a symbol for lethal danger or poison.

Symbol Origins

The original biohazard labels were developed by the Dow Chemical Company back in 1966. At the time, the company used these biohazard stickers on their containment canisters for products. Then, in 1967, the symbol was presented as the leading standard for all biological hazards, which then became known as biohazards. Over 40 symbols were drawn and presented by artists working for Dow, and each one looked at had to meet a variety of criteria to ensure they were not too confusing to the general public. The idea behind the symbol was a warning, so it would not pay to have individuals confused by the sign posted.

The Original Design

As for the design, the artists behind the symbol ensured the sign can be completed using a compass and a straightedge, two well-known artist’s tools. The basic outline is generally a trefoil, with three circles overlapping each other, much like within a Venn diagram. These circles tend to be varying colors, though black and yellow tends to be the norm these days, as mentioned above.

There are a wide variety of symbols, though, especially throughout various parts of the world. Older symbols for flammable substances, for example, were once painted in yellow or orange, with black flames in the center to indicate something could be lit on fire in a dangerous manner.

Canada’s Biohazard System

In Canada, the government published a modified version of their WHMIS system, known as WHMIS 2015. This was created to include all workplace chemicals mentioned within the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, a complex system built to cover all types of dangerous materials and hazards. All workplaces dealing with such dangerous substances are required by Canadian law to feature this newly modified system and teach their workers of the dangers. If you would like to learn more, there are more resources available at ICC Compliance Center.

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