What You Need to Know About Dangerous Goods Signage

At home there are cupboards or cabinets that we keep out of reach of children or pets, dedicated to storing household cleaners and other chemicals – this is done as these chemicals are harmful to both living creatures and materials. In industrial applications, dangerous goods are treated with much more care as industrial chemicals are a lot more volatile and can cause much more damage if proper handling policy is not followed. Part of the requirements for the proper handling of dangerous goods is making sure that these goods are labelled with the appropriate signage to communicate vital information to employees and prevent accidents involving these chemicals. In this article we will be discussing the types of dangerous goods signage being commonly used, and why proper labelling is so important.

Types of Dangerous Goods Signage


The first dangerous goods signage scheme we will discuss today is the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, commonly shortened to just GHS. Considered a global standard, this labelling system establishes a common standard for classifying chemicals according to the hazards that they pose. The pictographic labels that follow this standard can vary from country to country in terms of colours and the shapes of the labels, but the design of the pictograms themselves are modeled directly from the designs established in the GHS. These designs and their associated hazards are listed below:

Explosives: These are highly reactive and volatile substances that can cause explosions if it is activated through heat, pressure, or some other method.

Flammables: These substances are highly reactive like explosives, but do not release energy as rapidly when ignited, causing it to burn instead of explode.

Oxidisers: These substances can act as a catalyst that helps start or intensify the burning of another material.

Compressed gases: These are gases kept inside sealed chambers at higher than atmospheric pressure. Even if the stored gas does not have any hazards on its own, the pressure of its container can cause physical safety hazards if not handled carefully.

Corrosives: These substances cause violent chemical reactions with both living creatures and non-living materials, destroying the substances with which in comes into contact.

Toxic: These substances can cause mild discomfort to serious injury if touched directly, swallowed, or inhaled.

Health hazard: This label is set aside for substances that pose serious health risks when it comes into contact with human body parts. Carcinogenic and radioactive substances are part of this list.

Environmental hazard: These substances cause serious environmental damage, poisoning wildlife and plant life, if the substance comes into contact with either.

NFPA 704

The other chemical safety standard to be discussed today is the NFPA 704 Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response, developed by the National Fire Protection Association in the United States. As its background implies, it is mostly used in the US, but the way it works is interesting enough to discuss here.

NFPA 704, referred to colloquially as the “fire diamond” or “safety square”, consists of a diamond with four coloured quadrants in blue, red, yellow, and white. Each of these quadrants represents a type of hazard, which we will go into detail later. The blue, red, and yellow quadrants each contain a number from 0 to 4 representing the severity of that hazard, while the white quadrant is filled in with symbols to represent other hazards not included in the other three.

Our example diagram shows the NFPA ratings for the chemical benzene, which is one of the primary components of crude oil and its derivative products. It gets a rating of 3 in the blue quadrant, which refers to toxicity and general health hazards. This means the substance is capable of causing injury upon short term exposure to the substance. A rating of 3 in the red quadrant indicates high flammability compared to other substances. Though it might be very flammable, benzene has a 0 rating in the yellow quadrant, which stands for chemical reactivity. This indicates that benzene is a generally stable substance and does not react with most surfaces and other substances (unless, of course, it is burned).

The Importance of Proper Safety Signage

Based on what we’ve seen from the two most common chemical hazard labelling schemes, we can easily think of several reasons why it is important to properly label the chemicals we use both at home as well as in the greater industry.

The greatest success of the GHS and NFPA 704 standards is the amount of information they managed to condense into simple and easily-recognisable logos. This allows people to easily gain that information just by seeing these logos on the container of a given substance.

This might be all well and good in an ideal world, but the real world is not as perfect. As great as these safety signage standards are, there are a couple of important barriers to overcome to ensure the safe handling of these hazardous substances.

The first is training. Your well-designed, easily-recognisable labels will all be rendered completely useless if your employees are not trained or don’t have the right hi vis workwear and equipment. On the other hand, employers should make sure that the chemicals themselves are properly labelled. The only thing worse than not having labels on a chemical substance container is having the wrong labels on the container. Employees misled by an improperly labelled chemical container may end up causing major accidents.