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Symbols used in a chemistry laboratory and what they mean



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Symbols are used as a way to identify an idea or object in a simplified form. Symbols are also used as a universal language. The stick figure drawing of a person, at a crosswalk, on a sign near a street is understandable by most any driver no matter what language they speak. The letters X and Y are well recognized as variables in math. Symbols are also used to identify, warn and direct in laboratories.

Identification symbols

Alchemy symbols are frequently used to identify elements. Astronomical symbols of planets were also once used to identify different elements. Alchemy symbols are simple line based drawings. While a true picture is needed, an idea of Alchemy symbols can be found in the designation for tin. Tin is identified by two U shaped symbols. One U facing up and the other down while touching the top of one to the bottom of the other. The ends of the U’s are completed with small filled circles.

The periodic table is also an example of symbols used to identify elements. The simple capital letter H identifies hydrogen. The letters Fe identify iron. Colors used on the chart are used to add information to these letters. Light green shows the element as a Noble Gas while other colors represent Metals, non-Metals, Halogen and Rare Earth.

Warning symbols

Warning symbols are something that anyone entering a lab should be familiar with. Even the colors on signs can help to alert a user if the actual symbol is not understood. Signs in red or orange colors will generally alert to a danger. An orange sign with the outline of a flame in black should immediately alert someone to a fire hazard.

A sign or label with a skull and cross-bones makes a poison easy to identify. Explosive signs and labels vary with the type of hazard but can also show whether or not a substance is statically sensitive or safer to handle. Symbols of boots, safety glasses and gloves should make the occupant aware of required safety items needed.

Yellow signs or symbols are usually cautionary while green is used to identify less harmful items. A red circle with a red line through it is a simple way of saying “No”. Whatever is shown inside the circle is what should not be done.

Direction symbols

Direction symbols are something that should be familiar to most people. The symbol of an arrow, pointing up, on a box tells the user which end of the box should be placed in the upwards position.

Exit signs are normally lettered in the language of the country they are being used in but can still be identified as an exit when placed over a door. Arrow signs, placed on walls alert occupants as to the direction of travel they should take.

Signs in laboratories can also show users the location of hand washing or eye washing stations. These signs are easy to recognize with a picture of a water drop and an eye or hand. Power and gas shut off signs are placed over or near the actual shut off for emergency needs.

Before entering or working in any type of laboratory you should always familiarize yourself with the symbols that are used in the lab. There are hundreds of different signs and symbols used that vary according to the nature of the laboratory. Know where wash stations are located and where and how to turn off power or gas supplies. Know what chemicals are fire hazards, explosive or corrosive. Your first objective is to insure your safety and the safety of others around you.


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