Recognizing the Threat: Biohazard Labels

Biohazards, or biological hazards, are any biological substance that can pose a threat to human health. This includes medical waste, infected animal remains, microorganisms produced in labs, and organic acids or proteins which may cause infection. When such materials are shipped for examination or disposal, Canadian law requires that the containers be affixed with biohazard labels.

In order to avoid confusion in international shipment of materials, countries around the world have adopted the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, or GHS for short. GHS recommendations include affixing warning labels to all potential hazards, and that any business using them also maintain SDS (safety data sheets) for each substance in order to alert workers to the dangers, advise precautionary measures, and suggest medical responses.

Canadian authorities have adopted the GHS system requiring warning labels be used on all containers by suppliers or shippers of hazardous material, as well as by receiving companies that use their own containers. While the former WHMIS regulations are still in effect, as of May 31, 2017 all organizations are required to use the GHS system of warning labels. All hazardous substances manufactured, sold, distributed, or imported into Canada must have a GHS label.

GHS Biohazard Labels
All labels must include the following information:
* Hazard group (Health)
* Class, i.e, "Acute toxicity"
* Category (1 to 4)
* Hazard statement - statement describing the nature of the hazard
* Precautionary statement - steps to be taken for minimizing exposure
* Signal word, such as "DANGER" or "WARNING"
* Pictogram, or GHS symbol, which for Biohazard Labels is 3 triangular-positioned circles imposed over a central circle. This symbol originated with the Dow Chemical Company in 1966.
* Name of the manufacturer/supplier

GHS guidelines include directions for including these elements on each label, including classifications, categories, and appropriate signal words and hazard statements for each substance. However, they do not specify a particular label format, only that all these elements be included and the guidelines followed.

Biohazard Level
Biohazard Level 1: Bacteria and viruses of minimal risk, such as chickenpox or hepatitis.
Biohazard Level 2: Bacteria and viruses causing moderate risk, such as hepatitis C, influenza, mumps, Lyme disease, salmonella, or HIV.
Biohazard Level 3: Bacteria and viruses that can cause severe or fatal reactions, such as anthrax, SARS, MERS, typhus, or malaria.
Biohazard Level 4: This usually applies to dangerous diseases known to have originated from a biological laboratory and requiring maximum levels of protection and response.

Employers are responsible for educating workers in safety procedures, as well as ensuring that Biohazard Labels are attached to all containers and SDSs provided. Employees, however, are obliged to follow recommended procedures to to ensure their health and that of their coworkers.