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The Biohazard Symbol

October 4, 2021

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The Biohazard Symbol

The biohazard symbol is one of the most recognized around the world. As part of the international group of icons, the biohazard symbol expresses a warning of potentially dangerous substances so that people can take precautions when they are near them as well as with storage and disposal. The U.S. and many countries have established specific guidelines and laws regarding biohazardous materials, with additional local and state rules to ensure that people and the environment are safe from exposure to transmittable diseases. Using the biohazard or “biological hazard” symbol is a method of communication that expresses the dangers without the use of written words.

Without the use of universally accepted symbols such as the biohazard symbol, dangerous waste could be placed in landfills which could expose communities and the environment to potentially lethal pathogens that could cause infections and diseases to spiral out of control.

The FDA (Federal Drug Administration) has established the types of containers that will hold biohazardous materials, labeling, the addition of the biohazard symbol for identification, and requires professional disposal companies such as Healthcare Waste Management to comply with restrictive laws regarding the safe and effective disposal of the contents of any container that has the biohazard symbol.

The Biohazard Symbol Defined

The word “biohazard” means danger to life. Prior to 1966 there were several logos that represented dangerous contents, but none that were universally recognized as containing pathogens that could pose a threat for transmittable diseases.

The biohazard symbol consists of one center circle overlaid with three open circles. The circles represent:

The design of the biohazard symbol was crafted in the three-sided manner to avoid any problems in application as it can be applied in any direction and still tell the same story of danger.

Biohazard Symbol Creation

In 1966, Charles L. Baldwin was an environmental health engineer employed at the Dow Chemical Company. He began noting that there were a variety of warning symbol types that expressed different forms of danger but recognizing them required that people become familiar with each one. Working with Robert S. Runkle, the two men began pushing for a universal symbol that could express the serious condition of potential pathogen transmission. Their goal was to create a symbol that would be simple and yet easily recognized. The two devoted time to examining all the various symbols in existence and they combined quite a few in various designs. Runkle and Baldwin experimented by showing their designs to several people and asking them to guess the meaning of each one. The biohazard symbol received the fewest guesses and was the symbol that most people remembered. The team’s extensive research resulted in the biohazard symbol that we have today which includes simplicity of design in bold colors that are eye-catching.

Once the symbol was selected, various U.S. government agencies authorized it or use including OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), CDC (Center for Disease Control), and the NIH (National Institutes of Health).

Where was the Biohazard Symbol Created?

Charles Baldwin had been employed by the Dow Chemical Company, a business that dealt with several types of hazards, including biological hazards. He turned to the corporation’s packaging and design team to come up with a universal biohazard warning symbol that would be easily recognized. He gave the team little in the way of guidance except that the symbol had to be unique, striking, and something that would be remembered. The design team created a criteria list for the symbol:

It is important to note that the biohazard symbol is public domain. This means that there are no licenses or payments required for its use.

Why the Biohazard Symbol was Created

Pre-1966 there were many symbols to designate dangerous materials of all types. The most recognized for “poison” was the skull and crossbones, but none of the symbols could be allocated as potentially dangerous transmittable diseases. Hazardous symbols were also often regulated by various laws with specifics for standardization in color and design.

Warning symbols or icons were used instead of written words to convey dangers and threat levels so that they would be recognized by people of many languages. This situation led to the understanding that there was a need for some symbols that could be adopted internationally. The goal of the biohazard symbol was to convey the message that contents could contain potentially dangerous diseases that could be transmitted to people, communities, and the environment. At the time of the development of the symbol, Dow Chemical Company was an enterprise with a multinational reach which could use their influence for symbol adoption in the countries that they did business with. Once the biohazard symbol was adopted in the U.S. it quickly became accepted on an international level by countries around the globe. Today, the U.S. and it major trading partners all use the biohazard symbol as a warning for biohazard materials.

Defining Biohazard Levels

Just having containers that were identified with the biohazard symbol wasn’t enough as there are many different types of biohazardous materials that can run from minimal to extreme threat if allowed to be exposed to people or the environment. For both organizations and the people within it that were near, handled, stored and disposed of biohazard materials, there was a need for a more clarified method of identification. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and similar agencies around the world created four levels of biohazard:

Biohazard Containers

In addition to identifying specific biohazard levels and their dangers, the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) defined some specific requirements for the containers that would hold the materials that could transmit the pathogens. The design of the containers was also needed for easy location within a facility dealing with biohazardous materials, for safe storage, and for certified and licensed waste disposal companies such as Healthcare Waste Management for identifying and proper disposal. FDA-cleared containers must be:

How the Biohazard symbol is Used

The biohazard symbol is recognized internationally as an indication that there is a real or potential presence of a biohazard. It can be permanently printed on FDA-cleared containers or in the form of labels that can be placed in rooms, on equipment, materials, experimental areas or in any combination of these. The biohazard symbol is easily identified as “those infectious agents presenting a risk or potential risk to the well-being of man, either directly through his infection or indirectly through disruption of his environment.”

The biohazard symbol is orange-red or fluorescent orange in color and there isn’t any requirement for a background color as long as there is a contrast to show the symbol clearly. The size of the symbol is to be as prominent compared to the size of the equipment and/or location or the material on which it is affixed. The size should be large enough so that it can be easily viewed from as many directions as possible. There may be the addition of appropriate wording that is added to the biohazard symbol as an indication of the type, nature, or identity of the specific hazard material(s), the name of the individual or company responsible for the control of the biohazard material, and information listed for precautions. This information is to never be superimposed on the biohazard symbol so that it hides or changes the symbol identity.

Where is the Biohazard symbol used?

Any location that is involved with potentially dangerous transmittable pathogens is required to use biohazard containers that have the biohazard symbol. While we may associate the use with the medical industry, there are many environments that are not so obvious.

In addition to medical and dental facilities, the locations that use the biohazard symbol can include but are not limited to:

Waste Disposal Companies and the Biohazard symbol

Professional waste disposal companies such as Healthcare Waste Management are knowledgeable on the local, state, and federal laws that pertain to biohazard waste, the required labels and containers, and the proper transport and disposal of each type of waste. The priority of identifying biohazard waste using the biohazard symbol allows a waste disposal company to make the decision as to the appropriate and legal method for transport as well as safe disposal.

Healthcare Waste Management has a team of experts that will consult with clients to advise them on the requirements in their location for biohazard waste containment, storage, labeling, and the best locations for the biohazard containers. Healthcare Waste Management offer OSHA-approved online training courses for staff so that they can be aware of and comply with all of the laws and guidelines for biohazard materials.

When Healthcare Waste Management sends our trained and certified drivers to a customer location they will identify the containers that have the biohazard symbol. We pickup the containers and transport them in our own trucks to our company-owned disposal facilities.

Disposal of biohazard waste is dependent upon the waste level and makes use of chemical reactions, heat, or a combination of both for the decontamination of biohazardous wastes. When containers have the biohazard symbol the treatment processes include:

The use of the biohazard symbol allows easy identification for transport and ultimate destruction of potentially dangerous pathogens around the world.

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