Everyday safety — read the label, not just the symbol

I intended this article to be about warning symbols on household chemicals, but guess what. When I looked at the chemicals around my house, I realized how few symbols there are on those products.

Warning symbols- now you see them, now you don't

It has to do with where the product is sold and whether it's for consumers or for industrial use. A chemical product that is sold in a department store is intended for household use, so no warning symbols are required. If the same product is sold to industry, different labelling regulations apply.

Occasionally, a product is sold in two channels (for both consumer and industrial use) using one label. In that case, the manufacturer has to meet the industrial labeling regulations and the consumer products labeling regulations. An example of this that I found in my home is the lubricant 'WD-40'. The label meets all the industrial requirements, but also looks nice as a consumer label.

Industrial labels don't have to appeal to consumers. They're not intended to sell the product and you will see these products in auto parts stores. The label of a consumer product is a big part of what gets the consumers to put a product into their shopping carts instead of the competitor's brand.

When companies market a chemical, they walk a line between enticing us to buy their products and warning us about their potential hazards. Recently, someone at work told me they didn't want to use our hand sanitizer because I labeled it "extremely flammable." All hand sanitizers are extremely flammable because they contain high concentrations of alcohol. In the safety biz, we use these "signal words" on product labels, such as "warning" or "danger" to emphasize the hazard; it's required by law.

Label bureaucracy

In Canada, health and safety regulations require chemicals to be labeled in a certain way, known as the workplace hazard materials information system (WHMIS). The U.S. uses a similar format called the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). Now all countries have aligned warning symbols into an international standard called the Global Harmonized System (GHS). When the product goes traveling by road, rail, sea or air, a different set of labelling rules apply, called the Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG). This tells a fire department how to deal with a chemical spill or a ship's crew where to put the chemical container on their vessel. You'll see TDG signage the next time you drive behind a fuel truck on the road.

Symbol confusion

Someone recently told me that his cat had eaten some artist paint, and he wondered if it was toxic to the cat. I wondered if the cat's name is Vincent. (Van Gogh is reported to have eaten his own paint.) In the cat's case, it turned out that the paint was non-toxic.

I searched for the meaning of the non-standard warning symbol "AP" (nontoxic) or "CL" (potential risk) for the paint tube. They are from the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI), which is an industry group that rates the toxicology of art products. This non-standard approach to warning symbols is an example of unclear warning labels, and why having clear, instinctively recognizable warning symbology is important.

Pop culture warning symbols

Two symbols that most people recognize are the radiation symbol and the pirate symbol.

The ionizing radiation symbol is called the "Trefoil." It's a black dot surrounded by three pie-shaped wedges. You'll see this symbol at home, on the back of your smoke detector, which is safe as long as you don't tamper with it. The only other place you would come across this symbol is at a hospital's x-ray department. X-rays are not radioactive, but the hazard is similar.

Probably the most well-known warning symbol is the skull and crossed bones. Its use as a warning symbol dates back much earlier than as a pirate's flag. It may have begun in the 12th century, with the Knights Templar, who placed a skull between crossed femurs as part of one of their rituals. It has a strong cultural reference, and because of that it is still used today as the chemical warning symbol to show "acute toxicity" (poison).

Other symbols - they're not all about safety

Consumer products may have other symbols, for other purposes. Some are related to quality standards, such as ISO, ASME, ASTM and CE. These also have sub-sets such as environmental, organic and recyclability. There are also marketing symbols, such as "approved by the American Whatever Association," which basically means the manufacturer paid a fee to that association to use its logo.

Positivity and colour in warning symbols

Highways are where most symbology is used today. A red warning is always associated with danger. It is the colour of blood and, as a signal, it sends a strong message.

Interestingly, however, road designers found that a sign with an arrow with a green circle around it - a positive message meaning "go this way" - was more effective. When our brains see a negative symbol, it goes through two processes: determining what not to do and what needs to be done instead. Therefore, it's much faster and clearer for drivers to get a single, positive message "go this way."

Safety labels in the home

I read many warning labels in my home, and here are my general interpretations of each:

"Danger flammable" is found on containers with petroleum - things that burn well - such as lubricants and mineral spirit or paint thinner. "Extreme danger" or "extremely flammable" denote aerosol containers with petroleum products - things that burn well and quickly, such as paints and lubricants.

"Caution irritant" relates to insecticides, lawn chemicals and oven cleaners. These are eye hazards - things that spray or splash - but can also burn or irritate your skin. "Harmful if swallowed" is your warning for children. Examples are diluted household cleaners that are widely used by everyone. If it says "harmful or fatal if swallowed," the word "fatal" is important.

"Use in a well-ventilated area" is probably about the hazard of chemical pneumonia, caused by inhaling mists or vapours from bleach or pesticides or dust from fertilizer.

Any product with a lot of first-aid information is your hint that this is a serious product, and the manufacturer knows it. Similarly, this applies to any product with lots of instruction on how to use it, which is found on concentrated chemicals such as bleach, calcium-lime-rust descaler or other strong acids.

You can search "Use household chemicals safely" on Canada.ca for a good guide. Read the label, follow the instructions, and buy and wear inexpensive safety glasses when using chemicals and you'll be fine.

James Golemiec is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional with more than eight years' experience coordinating and managing complex safety systems at manufacturing facilities, and performing inspections on project job sites across Canada.

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