Understanding GHS Pictograms

The modern world relies on millions of different products, which are manufactured in facilities around the world. Many of these facilities relay heavily on the use of chemicals to help to create their products. There are also many chemicals that are the products themselves, such as cleaning supplies, medical products, and much more.

While these chemicals are absolutely essential in today’s world, they can also be very dangerous. This is why it is so important to have safety standards that make it possible to use hazardous chemicals in a way that keeps employees, consumers, and the environment safe.

Since manufacturing is a global industry, and companies interact across the world to meet the demands of the market, it is important to have a system in place that will work across cultures and languages. This is why the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, or GHS, was created.

One of the most recognizable components of GHS is the GHS pictograms. Understanding what these are, and how they are used, is critical for the overall safety of anyone who works with chemicals in any way.

What are GHS Pictograms?

GHS pictograms are a visual system that was created to convey information about dangerous chemicals in a way that everyone could understand, regardless of the language they spoke. These pictograms are also often called hazmat symbols. This is helpful in facilities where employees speak different languages. It is even more important, however, in situations where chemicals are sent to locations throughout the world.

For example, a chemical may be manufactured in Mexico, then shipped to France where it will be used. During this time, the storage containers may be placed on a ship that is manned with people from the United States. This means that people who speak Spanish, French, and English will be responsible for the chemicals at different times, and this is just one relatively simple example.

Rather than having to put multiple labels on the container, or update the labels at each step, the pictograms were created. These pictograms have several important characteristics that make them ideal for this type of situation.

Language Agnostic

The most important thing for GHS pictograms is that they could be understood no matter what language the person seeing them understood. This meant that they should have no words, or if words were necessary, they should be very simple options that anyone could be taught in seconds.

Simple Design

The design of these pictograms also needed to be very simple. Someone should be able to look at a pictogram and instantly recognize the meaning that it was conveying. These pictograms are often looked at in emergency situations, so it would not make sense for someone to have to look up their meaning to understand it.

Easily Visible

Another key thing about GHS pictograms is that they need to be highly visible, even if you aren’t right next to it. This is why the pictograms use bold colors (usually black on white or black on red) and thick image designs. This makes it so it is quick and easy to identify exactly what the pictogram means.

The 9 GHS Pictograms

There are 9 GHS pictograms to choose from. Each pictogram represents a different type of hazard. Some chemicals will have multiple different types of hazards associated with them; in which case it will be necessary to put multiple pictograms on the label. Making sure to have the right chemical symbol on each one is essential not only for improving safety, but also for regulatory compliance in most countries.

The 9 GHS pictograms are as follows:


The flame pictogram indicates that the chemical being labeled is flammable, or that it emits a gas that is flammable. It could also indicate a number of other fire related hazards such as that it is self-heating or reactive. Any chemical with this type of hazard should use this flammable symbol.

Health Hazard

The health hazard pictogram is an outline of a person with a six-pointed star on the chest. When this health hazard symbol is used it means the chemical will cause some type of health hazard. This could be a cancer risk, a respiratory danger, organ toxicity, or other dangers.

Exclamation Mark

The simple exclamation mark pictogram is used to indicate that the chemical is an eye or skin irritant. In general, chemicals that require this pictogram are less dangerous than other ones, but safety measures should still be taken whenever it is found.

Gas Cylinder

If a chemical is stored under pressure, the gas cylinder pictogram will be used. This can also include chemicals that are stored in refrigerated containers.

Exploding Bomb

The pictogram of an explosion, or an exploding bomb, is used when a chemical can cause an explosion. This is often for self-reactive chemicals or those that can explode when exposed to air or other common elements.


The pictogram that looks like two test tubes pouring liquid out is used for corrosive chemicals. This is used for chemicals that can cause corrosion to metals, skin, or other materials. The corrosive symbol should help to prompt people to take proper precautions, including wearing personal protection equipment.

Skull and Crossbones

The iconic skull and crossbones image is used on a pictogram that is placed on any chemicals that are acutely toxic. This toxic symbol would include any that can cause serious poisoning or death.


The pictogram that looks like a tree, water, and fish is used for any chemical that can be harmful to the environment. Specifically, it is used when the chemical is toxic in water. Unlike other pictograms, this one is not yet required by most regulatory agencies, though that will likely change in the future.

Flame Over Circle

The flame over a circle pictogram is used on any chemical that is an oxidizer. This will include oxidizers that are solids, liquids, or gasses.

Creating GHS Labels

Creating GHS labels is a simple task that only takes a few minutes if there is an industrial label printer in the facility. All of these types of printers will have the ability to create hazard signs, hazard symbols, biohazard symbols, poison symbols, radiation symbols, and many others built into the software, which makes it very easy.

Companies that do not yet have a label printer on site will be able to order pre-made warning symbols that can be used as needed. These premade safety symbols can come as stick on labels, or metal labels that are often seen on trucks that transport hazardous chemicals.

When printing off custom GHS labels, they should maintain the diamond shape that has the actual image in the middle. In situations where multiple pictograms are needed for one chemical, they should be printed in a diamond shape so up to four different symbols can be placed in one area.

The four-diamond layout standard is a very recognizable part of the overall GHS system. It is possible to make the pictograms larger or smaller based on the amount of space that is available on the container that is being used.

What are the 3 Hazard Classes?

When people first start looking into GHS pictograms, they usually learn about what each of the nine options means. It is also important to know that this system breaks the various hazards down into three classes as well. The three classes are explosives, gasses, and flammable liquids and solids. Many of the pictograms will fit into multiple different hazard classes.

Educating Your Team on GHS Pictograms

While there is quite a bit to know about GHS pictograms, all the essential information should be able to be explained to new employees quite quickly. This is made even easier because anyone who has ever worked in a facility with hazardous chemicals will likely have already been taught this information.

While the members of your team that are directly responsible for creating the GHS pictograms and placing them on chemical containers may need to know more advanced information, for most people it is not necessary. For example, those who actually label containers would need to understand which chemicals require a radiation sign, but those who work with the containers just need to know what that sign is.

With a little effort, you can ensure your facility and your employees are not only compliant with all regulations, but also that everyone is able to work as safely as possible.

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