Reading the warning signs

posted by Phill Allen

February, 22nd, 2019

Company News Pharmaceutical Industry News

Sign language

Here at ALLpaQ, as we supply the industry with our cutting-edge bioprocess containers, we deal with a lot of medical facilities and laboratories. We know that every lab will be decorated with standard Hazard Warning Signs. If you work with, or around, hazardous materials, you will likely have been told to become familiar with these symbols and to treat them with respect.
But where they come from, who decided to use those exact symbols, and why? The job of a warning sign is a fairly simple one: To warn the unwary. But the successful achievement of that simple task is a lot more complex than one might, at first glance, suspect.
For a warning sign to work it has to be understandable by everyone who might need warning. The word ‘Danger’ seemingly fits the bill – except in countries where they don’t speak or write English.
If you received a delivery labelled ‘Hætta’ or ‘Опасность’ or’危险’, would you know it was warning you of ‘Danger’? Probably not. So language won’t cut it – the sign needs to be an image, some kind of symbol.
The age-old symbol for poison is the skull and crossbones.  Everyone understands that the skull and crossbones means ‘Danger’, right?
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Making your warning sign red, that’s a safe bet – because red is universally understood to mean danger, right? Any sign with a red border is obviously a warning sign, isn’t it! Except in the Far East, where red is the colour of good luck. No, a warning symbol needs to be universally understood, immediately, by everyone, everywhere.

Memorable but meaningless

Good cases in point of this would be the Radioactivity warning sign, first used at the University of California after WW2. This trefoil design is meant to suggest three waves of radiation … well, radiating .. from the nucleus at the centre.

Since 2007, this symbol has been set on a red background and accompanied by a skull and crossbones, plus a running man – so, hopefully, no-one from any culture will now mistake this symbol for something safe and friendly. Then there is the spiky Biohazard symbol, which you may be surprisingly familiar with.

As Vox reveals in this very informative video, Dow Chemical did some methodical market research, back in 1966, to find a Biohazard warning symbol which was easy to remember, but brought with it no semiotic baggage – a symbol which was, in other words, meaningless – so they could give it meaning!
You’ll likely recognise this sign, even if you’ve never seen it at work, because it has, uniquely, entered the public consciousness, as you will find it attached to any number of Zombie Apocalypse films and games.

Designing any form of signage comes with challenges such as these. Take, for example, Britain’s road-signs – which you have been looking at your whole life. They were created, initially, by Graphic Designers Lock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, back in 1958, when Britain’s road network was expanding and great numbers of people were, for the first time, stepping off public transport and into their own motorised vehicles. As Wired magazine explains in this piece, the key challenge was to create a font and suite of imagery which would be explicable to a viewer travelling at great speed.

In the seventy years since then, nothing has come along to improve on their response to that challenge.

The 2009 convention

With particular reference to chemicals and gases – a variety of different warning signs were used around the world, offering up the very real danger of miscommunication so, in 2009, ‘CLP’ came into force: the European Regulation on Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures. This was based on the pre-existing United Nations’ Globally Harmonised System on the Classification and Labelling of Chemicals – known as GHS for short.
As a consequence of all this, everything from your sharps bin to the backs of your company tankers, to the controls of a Nuclear power plant, should have consistent and clear signs, making it (we hope) impossible for people to forget that they are working with hazardous materials that demand (and deserve) respect. Of course, what these internationally agreed-upon signs will look like down the road, is anyone’s guess.

The signs are good at ALLpaQ

If you are a Life Sciences or Healthcare provider, and you’d like to talk to us about how we can help you with your handling of hazardous materials, get in touch:

TAGS: bioprocess, chemicals, danger sign, warning signs,


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Phill Allen

Managing Director

An in and outside the (bioprocess) box thinker, fluid management specialist Phill knows a thing or two about keeping pharma liquid logistics flowing.

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