What Are the Origins of the Biohazard Symbol?

Easily recognized, the biohazard symbol has a rather interesting history.

Signs and symbols are designed to be glanced at, not studied.  They need to convey the maximum amount of information using the minimum amount of content, which is why the biohazard symbol is important; health and safety depend on it. You may be familiar with the biohazard image itself and know to take caution when you see it, but did you know that the design has a rather fascinating history behind it?

The symbol was created by Charles L. Baldwin of Dow Chemicals and Robert S. Runkle of the National Institutes of Health in 1966.  The people of Dow Chemical were no strangers to warning symbols.  In a facility that used hazardous materials, there was practically a symbol for every known dangerous substance.  Baldwin realized that not everyone was familiar with what each symbol represented, so he set out to design a universal symbol that would be easily recognized and memorized.

The symbol itself doesn’t have any deep meaning, but was designed through user-testing; the marketing department at Dow surveyed groups to test their memory of common brands’ logos, all of which were easily recognized.  The least recognized, of course, was the biohazard symbol.  After a week, the survey was redistributed to the same test group, and it was then that the symbol was easily remembered.

After publication in a science journal, the biohazard symbol we know today was authorized by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institutes of Health as universal.

The reason the symbol is three-sided is so there is no mistakes when affixing it to hazardous materials; there is no right way up, no matter how it is placed. The symbol usually found on a yellow background in a triangle, but this isn’t part of the original design. In fact, the only rule to using the biohazard symbol was that there be enough contrast for the symbol to stand out against the background on which it is placed.

The symbol is now public domain, so there is no charge or royalties to pay for its use.

With all the changes and new technologies, one thing remains constant: signs and symbols are still used as an effective way of communication.  We can thank the biohazard symbol for setting the standard easily-recognized safety symbols that grab our attention and prevent dangerous accidents every day.

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