Biohazard Symbol: Origin, Meaning And Uses

The modern biohazard symbol is a globally recognized symbol conveying the dangers of biohazards and warning people about the presence of biohazard waste.

A Grunge Style Black and Yellow Biohazard Symbol on a Grey Wall
A Grunge Style Cool Biohazard Symbol Illustration by Carlos Amarillo

It essentially warns people to take precautionary measures and stay away from biohazards to avoid exposure. To ensure optimal safety, this symbol is used to represent the presence of all four biohazard levels established by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Level 1: Viruses and bacteria that pose minimal threat to humans.
  • Level 2: Biohazards that cause mild diseases in humans.
  • Level 3: Pathogens and biohazards that can cause severe diseases or fatalities in humans upon contact. Vaccines exist for these viruses and bacteria.
  • Level 4: Viruses that cause severe diseases and fatalities in humans, and no vaccines are available to fight them.

The Origin of The Biohazard Symbol

The biohazard symbol has an undeniably rich history. Before 1966, a wide array of biohazard warning signs existed to denote various biohazards.

However, very few people knew what those signs stood for. Charles Baldwin, an environmental and health engineer, was rightfully concerned that the assortment of these confusing signs would fail to keep people away from biohazards and sites with biohazard waste. After all, how could people be expected to remember the full range of these symbols?

It is why Baldwin sought out to create a uniform, standardized biohazard sign. By taking this course of action, he argued that the layman would be better protected against potential biohazards if there existed a clear, unmistakable warning sign rather than a confusing hodge-podge of signs for different biohazards.

Baldwin was an employee of Dow Chemical Company, a conglomerate deeply familiar with biohazards. He took the help of the Dow Marketing and Package Design department to design a standardized biohazard warning sign.

All he wanted from the team was to create a distinctive, striking sign that people could easily remember. He aimed to create a memorable and educational symbol.

The Distinctive Design of the Symbol

Baldwin collaborated with the design team and came up with a list of design criteria for the symbol:

  • Unique and memorable
  • Unmistakable and attractive
  • Not to be confused with other symbols
  • Easy to stencil
  • Quickly recognizable and easily recalled
  • Symmetrical – to appear identical when seen from varied angles
  • Acceptable to all ethnic backgrounds

The team developed more than forty symbols in the process. They tested the recognizable symbols by mixing them with half a dozen original symbols and asking people across the country to look at the signs and guess what each one meant.

Surprisingly, the biohazard symbol that exists today got the least number of correct guesses.

However, when Baldwin and his team returned to those people a week later, placed the symbols in front of them again, and asked them which one they remembered, most of the test subjects chose the current biohazard symbol.

Thanks to the exceptional results in terms of memorability, the biohazard symbol gained quick worldwide popularity.

The Color and Configuration of the Symbol

The biohazard symbol proved to be so memorable because its color and shape were chosen after careful deliberation.

The color is a blazing orange, adapted from the colors used in Arctic exploration as they are impressively visible under many conditions.

Moreover, the shape of the symbol was perfectly symmetrical and three-sided so that there was no “right way up,” and the symbol remained recognizable even if the surface it is on is placed upside down.

Even though this symbol is often placed on a yellow background, it was never part of the original design. The sole prerequisite was that the symbol should contrast against its background.

After the success of the sign, Baldwin publicized it in the Science Journal. The biohazard symbol was soon authorized by the US Center for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as the universal sign to warn people about biohazard sites and objects.

Biohazard Symbol Meaning And Use

The biohazard symbol is a thoughtfully designed symbol with four circles representing the infection chain – agent, host, source, and transmission.

  • Agent: It refers to the type of pathogen that can cause a hazardous condition or infection.
  • Host: The organism affected by the pathogen
  • Source: The origin of the pathogen
  • Transmission: The means with which the virus or bacteria infects the host. It can be direct or indirect. Common transmission paths include insect bites, breathing in the virus/bacteria, and touching contaminated surfaces.

The biohazard symbol is universally used to report harmful or hazardous waste and substances, including toxins, viruses, and medical waste, that are toxic and dangerous for living beings. It’s used as a warning sign to keep people from coming into contact with such substances.

People use it to indicate the presence of a biohazard and to mark containers, rooms, equipment, experimental animals, and materials so that they are contained and handled properly.

This symbol is typically placed upon a placard and attached to the biohazard container. It might come in different colors, borders, and backgrounds, but the design itself remains the same. At times, people also use appropriate phrases and words alongside the sign to keep people away from dangerous biohazards.

Other Modern and Pop Culture Uses

Today, the biohazard symbol is readily used outside medical waste storage spaces, industrial plants, doctors’ offices, and labs to keep people out of harm’s way.

However, the symbol is also used in modern subculture groups, often in an ironic way. For instance, many members of the LGBTQA+ community use the symbol as a tattoo referencing and raising awareness against AIDS/HIV.

Moreover, the biohazard symbol is also used as a tattoo by the fans of the Rap, Metal, and Hardcore music band Biohazard.

The symbol is also reminiscent of the triskele or triskelion, representing a being with three intertwined spirals. The triskele is often assigned the role of the carrier of cosmic force. People combine it with the biohazard symbol and use it in tattoos.

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