The biohazard symbol is the most recognized symbol in the world — and that’s by design. We’ve seen it everywhere, but how did that come to be? Read more to learn about who designed the symbol, why, and how the biohazard symbol keeps us safe today.
Who Created The Biohazard Symbol and Why
The biohazard symbol was designed with intention by Charles L. Baldwin, an environmental health engineer of Dow Chemicals, and Rovert S. Runkle of the NIH in 1966. It was created to be an international symbol—one that could be recognized by anyone in the world, no matter your background or what language you speak.
Baldwin, working in a facility with numerous hazardous substances, realized that not everyone in the facility understood what every symbol meant in the lab. He saw this as a problem and a barrier to keeping the public safe and informed.
His drive to keep people safe is what inspired him to create a new, universal symbol that everyone could understand.
Instead of creating a different symbol for every chemical and hazard, Baldwin created a single symbol to avoid any further confusion. This one symbol allowed his coworkers and the rest of the world to recognize something as dangerous without having to understand the exact ingredients of the substance.
When we see the surgeon general’s warning label on cigarettes, we know that cigarettes are dangerous to our well-being. We don’t need to have knowledge of every ingredient and why it’s harmful.
The same goes for alcohol. We don’t need to understand every ingredient inside those items — knowing they are bad for you is reason enough to leave them alone.
The biohazard symbol acts as the same kind of warning.
The biohazard symbol covers a lot of ground to convey a consistent message anyone from any part of the world can understand: danger.
The Biohazard Symbol Was Designed To Be Unforgettable
Runkle and Baldwin wanted the symbol to be easily recognizable and unique. It was important to Baldwin and Runkle that this symbol be so specific that it could not be confused with another. The symbol was intended to be inclusive of any ethnic background. It also needed to be symmetrical so that any way you saw the symbol, it looked the same.
Dow knew that creating a simple symbol that was easy to remember could potentially save lives. Dow took the task of creating the memorable symbol very seriously. Dow’s marketing team spent countless hours crafting several different symbols and finally conducted user testing.
In the survey groups, Dow presented several different well-known logos, and the unknown and newly formulated biohazard symbol. The idea was to gauge how familiar these logos and symbols were to the public. For obvious reasons, the survey group found the biohazard symbol as the least recognizable because the image was new to them.
But that’s when something interesting happened.
The Biohazard Symbol Was Born
Dow did the test once again a week later and found that after explaining the biohazard symbol just once, everyone in the group remembered its meaning and significance.
They found the winner.
Since the biohazard symbol is three-sided, there is no wrong way to append the symbol. The only rule to using the biohazard symbol is that there has to be enough contrast between the symbol and the background so that the image is impossible to miss. We often see biohazard signs with yellow backgrounds, but that is not mandatory to the design—it just causes more attention.
Examples of Biohazardous Substances the Symbol Signifies
The biohazard symbol is used to alert others of blood and human tissues that contain blood. Blood is dangerous because of the infectious properties pathogens can emit—making blood a biohazard to people and the environment.
- Animal Waste
Dead animals and any materials that were exposed to animals carrying infectious pathogens.
- Microbiological Waste
Microbiological wastes are more prominent in scientific labs. These examples include specimen cultures, culture dishes, thrown-out viruses, and devices utilized for transferring or mixing cultures.
Unfixed human tissues (except for the skin) and other materials used for things like autopsies and human biopsies.
- Sharps Waste
Needles, glass slides, and cover slides that are used to inspect blood on a microscope, scalpels, and IV tubing with the needle still attached at the end.
It’s impossible to measure how many lives Baldwin and Runkle saved by creating this symbol. Not, it is a worldwide symbol that keeps people safe every day.
Today, the symbol is a public domain, meaning that anyone can use the symbol on anything without charge or paying a royalty fee.
If you’ve encountered any of the examples mentioned above and don’t know what to do, please give us a call. We’ll be happy to help you figure out the next steps and if it’s safe to clean up on your own.