What are Hazardous Waste Labels?

M. McGee

Hazardous waste labels are used to warn people that an item contains a dangerous substance. There are many different policies for labeling hazardous substances, mostly based on the country of sale, manufacture or transport of the container in question. Generally, hazardous waste labels have a picture that indicates its hazardous nature, a prominent word that indicates danger and break down of the substance contained. Since hazardous waste is mostly a byproduct of human processes, certain kinds have special labeling that indicate their artificial nature.

Radioactivity is indicated by a unique symbol.
Radioactivity is indicated by a unique symbol.

In 1992, the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) attempted to combine the labeling system for all participating countries into a single system. The basic idea was that all labeling would be consistent everywhere in the world. Even if a person couldn’t read the words, the design and picture would be familiar enough for people to understand the danger.

Medical waste is marked with hazardous waste labels in most countries.
Medical waste is marked with hazardous waste labels in most countries.

The United Nations approved this program, but it has met with varying success in its participating countries. GHS has worked out well in the European Union and is very common in its member countries. The United States has adopted most of its policies, but certain manufacturers still use proprietary hazardous waste labels. Even though they don’t adhere to the GHS guidelines, they are generally very explicit in their pictures and warnings—enough so to capture people’s attention.

Hazardous waste covers a huge range of possible dangers, so hazardous waste labels do as well. Under the GHS system, the label and the picture associated with it designate what sort of danger the item poses. Different types of hazardous waste can do anything from cause explosions to increase the risk of cancer or even eat through metal. Since the category is so broad, there isn’t simply a hazardous waste label; its labeling is generally mixed in with naturally occurring substances.

One of the few exceptions to this policy is medical waste. While certain types of medical waste do fall within the categories outlined by the GHS, many countries prefer to label them with a specialized system. These hazardous waste labels may also have the standard GHS information, but there are generally pictures associated with the local country’s medical system.

Other slight changes based on location are common. For instance, in European countries, the saltire, an old heraldic symbol of two sticks or weapons crossed, is commonly used to gain people’s attention. In the US, that symbol is less recognizable, so they use a single exclamation point instead. Other common changes occur to the colors used, usually in areas where red is less associated with danger.

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