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"While specific information about a material's hazards and severity is detailed below the symbol, the NFPA diamond itself contains a short-hand visual code for understanding the chemical’s safety implications."
 

Interpreting the NFPA diamond

Modernsymbology is based on the belief that a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to communicating the presence of hazardous materials, pictograms provide easy identification, which can help minimize exposure and risks.

In industrial, commercial and institutional facilities that manufacture, process, use or store hazardous materials, the National Fire Protection Association's "hazard diamond"is often used on ANSI (American National Standards Institute) labels and MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) stickers, decals and signs. While specific information about a material's hazards and severity is detailed below the symbol, the NFPA diamond itself contains a short-hand visual code for understanding the chemical’s safety implications. This does mean that the NFPA diamond’s symbols must be learned in order for workers to benefit from them.Here’s a quick primer:

The diamond addresses the emergency health, fire and reactivity hazards that can occur from short-term, acute exposure – such as due to a fire or spill – ratherthan chronic exposure or "non-emergency occupational exposure" to a hazardous material.

The system contains four quadrants, which are usually color-coded. In the upper three quadrants:

  • The blue box on the left represents emergency health hazards.

  • The top red box represents the fire hazard.

  • The right yellow box represents the reactivity hazard.

Each box contains a number, from 0 to 4, which signals the degree of the hazard. A "0" indicates "no unusual hazard" and a "4" warns of an "extreme hazard."

The bottom white box is for "special hazards." Although it often includes a symbol for "radioactive" or "biohazard," the symbols below are the only ones recognized in the NFPA system:

  • W – This indicates the chemical has an "unusual reactivity with water," and caution should be taken before using water to fight a fire or control a spill.

  • OX – This indicates that the material is an oxidizer.

Here's an example of the information communicated by a NFPA label. A diamond for ethanol containing a 1 in the left box, 3 in the top box, 0 in the right box and a straight line in the bottom box would indicate:

  • The health hazard (rated 1): It's a "material that on exposure would cause irritation but only minor residual injury."

  • The fire hazard (rated 3): It's a "liquid or solid that can be ignited under almost all ambient temperature conditions."

  • The reactivity hazard (rated 0): It’s a “material that in itself is normally stable, even under fire exposure conditions, and is not reactive with water.”

  • The line in the bottom box: The material does not show "unusual reactivity" with water and doesn't possess oxidizing properties.

As another example, a label for lithium that contains a 3 for "health," a 2 for "fire," a 2 for "reactivity" and a W in the bottom box tells us that:

  • "On short exposure, the material could cause serious temporary or residual injury."

  • The "material must be moderately heated or exposed to relatively high ambient temperature before ignition can occur."

  • The "material readily undergoes violent chemical change at elevated temperatures and pressures or reacts violently with water, which may form explosive mixtures with water."

  • This "unusual reactivity with water" requires caution if a spill or fire occurs.
More information about the meaning of each number for each hazard can be found here.
NFPA Labels An example of an NFPA diamond.
 
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