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7 Basic Lab Safety Symbols & What They Mean

Posted by Christine Lellis on Aug 1, 2023 10:01:00 AM

In 1977, researchers designed an experiment to test whether lab safety symbols are effective in capturing people's attention when they’re engaged in a task.

The researchers observed 100 students using hammers in a laboratory setting. Of these students, not a single one even noticed the warning labels the researchers had placed on the hammers. The researchers concluded that warning labels — especially those on familiar objects — are often filtered out and ignored.

If you’re responsible for overseeing laboratory safety  at your organization, you probably didn’t need a research paper to tell you this! Even so, this experiment illustrates why reinforcing basic lab safety symbols is so important, even for experienced lab safety professionals.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common lab safety symbols and their meanings to review with your employees — along with some interesting facts that will help you keep their attention:

1. The General Warning Sign

Perhaps the most recognizable lab safety symbol is the General Warning Sign. This ubiquitous sign, which features an exclamation point on a yellow triangle , can signify a variety of general hazards.

Its simple yet distinctive design, which dates back to early traffic safety efforts, is intended to quickly capture attention and signal caution. Today, the General Warning Sign is used in many different contexts, from roadways to workplaces, labs, public spaces, and consumer products.

In the laboratory setting, the General Warning Sign alerts individuals to a variety of general hazards like slipping, falling objects, electrical hazards, and other non-specific risks. Its presence serves as a visual cue to remain vigilant and take appropriate precautions in the face of potential dangers.

2. The Biohazard Symbol

The Biohazard Symbol was created in 1966 by Charles Baldwin, an environmental engineer at the Dow Chemical Company. Baldwin was commissioned to develop a symbol that would effectively communicate the presence of biological specimens that could pose health and safety hazards, such as blood or bacteria.

The resulting symbol consists of a circle with three interlocking arcs forming a trefoil pattern. This design was chosen because it was simple, easily distinguishable, and not likely to be confused with other common symbols. The trefoil shape represents potential hazards from infectious agents or other biological materials.

Since its creation, the Biohazard Symbol has become a universal warning sign and is widely used to alert people to the presence of biohazards in various settings, such as labs, hospitals, and hazardous waste storage areas. Individuals who encounter this symbol are reminded to use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, masks, and gowns to prevent potential contamination.

3. The Explosive Materials Symbol

The Explosive Materials symbol features an exploding bomb inside a red diamond. The color red is associated with danger and serves to draw immediate attention to the presence of explosive substances or volatile materials that have the potential to cause serious harm if not handled properly.

The explosive materials symbol is used in various contexts, such as transportation, storage, and manufacturing of explosive materials to alert workers, emergency responders, and the public to potential dangers.

While the symbol is commonly associated with explosive materials, it can also indicate the presence of other hazardous substances, such as self-reactive substances, organic peroxides, and chemicals that can release explosive gases when heated or subjected to shock. Labs that handle these substances should implement stringent policies for fire and explosion safety to ensure a safe working environment.

4. The Flammable Materials Symbol

Around the mid-20th century, a number of high-profile industrial accidents underscored the importance of fire safety measures and the need for standardized symbols to communicate hazards effectively.

This led to the development of the Flammable Materials symbol, which consists of an image of a flame inside a red diamond. Its purpose is to visually indicate the presence of flammable materials or substances that are highly combustible and pose fire hazards if not handled properly.

The Flammable Materials symbol plays a crucial role in promoting safety in labs, workplaces, and other environments where flammable substances are present. Its recognizable design serves as an essential warning sign, reminding individuals to exercise caution and follow safe handling and storage practices when dealing with flammable materials.

5. The Toxic Materials Symbol

Few symbols are as instantly recognizable as the Toxic Materials symbol, with its ominous skull and crossbones design. The symbol's origins can be traced back to pirate flags, where it became a popular emblem to represent death and danger.

By the 1800s, the skull and crossbones had come to be associated with poisonous or deadly substances. Then, in 1829, the state of New York passed a law requiring the labeling of containers holding toxic materials. The skull and crossbones symbol began to appear on these labels to alert individuals to the dangers of touching, inhaling, or ingesting these substances.

Today, the skull and crossbones design serves as a universal warning sign on consumer products and in labs and workplaces, playing a crucial role in flagging potential hazards and reminding individuals to use appropriate PPE when handling these substances.

6. The Non-Ionizing Radiation Symbol

Unlike the Ionizing Radiation symbol, which is frequently depicted in sci-fi scenes involving radioactive materials or nuclear power, the Non-Ionizing Radiation symbol finds practical application in everyday situations where non-ionizing radiation is used regularly.

This symbol is commonly seen in real-world settings such as labs, warning individuals about potential exposure to non-ionizing radiation from devices like heat lamps and lasers. Its presence in these settings aims to promote safety awareness and encourage individuals to take appropriate precautions when using devices that emit non-ionizing radiation.

The Non-Ionizing Radiation symbol typically features a yellow triangle with waves inside it, representing different types of non-ionizing radiation such as microwave, radio, infrared (IR), and ultraviolet (UV) frequencies. The symbol's simple and intuitive design ensures that it can be understood across language barriers, making it an effective visual cue to communicate potential radiation exposure clearly and universally.

7. The Low Temperature Symbol

As safety regulations and awareness have increased, so has the demand for standardized safety symbols in labs and industrial workplaces. This has led to the development of symbols like the Low Temperature symbol, which helps individuals avoid potential hazards associated with extreme cold conditions.

The Low Temperature symbol typically features an image of a snowflake, indicating low temperatures or cryogenic hazards. It is often seen on equipment like ultra low temperature freezers used to store biological samples or reagents, or storage tanks used for liquid nitrogen and other cryogenic substances.

The presence of the low temperature symbol on these items and equipment serves as a reminder to lab personnel that special precautions like rubber gloves and aprons, face shields, and closed toe footwear should be used to avoid frostbite or other potential hazards associated with extremely cold temperatures.

Final thoughts

The meaning behind these seven basic lab safety symbols isn’t rocket science. In fact, they’re intentionally designed to be quite obvious. However, it’s easy for even experienced professionals to become complacent.

Bill, a lab safety expert at SciShield, cites the ‘no food or drink in the lab’ rule as a perfect example. Even though the rule is prominently displayed on door signs and within the labs, there's a tendency to neglect it — especially when desks are present in the lab environment.

“People tend to consider their desks as sanctuaries from the rules,” explains Bill. “In one instance, a user grabbed their coffee mug and ended up with a slight chemical exposure to their face."

Reinforcing the meaning of common laboratory safety signs through regular training, including stories that illustrate the importance of these warnings, is one way to remind individuals to remain attentive. But labs are ever-changing environments that require constant vigilance to stay ahead of potential hazards.

This is where innovative lab safety solutions like SciShield come into play. SciShield’s digital lab safety solutions, including RFID chemical inventory management, SDS software, and digital lab door signs, can help you better understand where people are working within your organization and what hazards they’re exposed to so you can proactively enhance safety measures. For more information and to explore how SciShield can complement your safety and compliance efforts, request a consultation with our team.

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