Delicate Matters

A poster from Dow Chemical's

A poster from Dow Chemical's "Life Is Fragile" campaign from the 1970s illustrates the importance of workplace safety. Dow Historical Collection, CHF Collections.

In the 1970s The Dow Chemical Company undertook a massive campaign to raise awareness about the importance of safety both within and outside of the workplace. The campaign’s tagline, “Life Is Fragile: Handle with Care,” was paired with an iconic image of a silhouetted father, mother, and child, and stamped on hundreds of posters, stickers, and other promotional materials.

Millard Hooker, a longtime advertising associate at Dow, conceived of and implemented the poster campaign. His main goal was to stress the fragility of life and the value of a healthy balance between family and work. “Life Is Fragile” emphasized the importance of watching out not only for one’s own safety but also for the safety of others—a message that translated well into both the chemical plant and life in general. Posters were displayed in Dow offices and plants, as well as in public places, including libraries and schools. Elementary schools even staged poster contests inspired by “Life Is Fragile,” with the goal of instilling in children the importance of community-wide safety awareness. The company’s “democratic” method of display undoubtedly reached many communities, even those unfamiliar with the name Dow and the fact that it was responsible for the campaign.

The featured 1975 poster, “In Plant Hazards,” highlights the many occupational risks of working in a chemical plant. The colorful cartoon pairs a playful tone with sobering content. Note, for instance, the unassuming cigarette smoker cleaning combustibles off the floor and the two men distractedly chatting while using a jigsaw. The poster, presumably meant for internal use, presents a range of workplace hazards with the intent to alert and educate.

The “Life Is Fragile” material offers insight into the effects of far-reaching corporate stewardship campaigns. It brings to light the forces acting on powerful multinational corporations in the 1970s: namely, calls for greater corporate transparency and environmental awareness along with a conscious effort to include public interest in business plans. The “Life Is Fragile” material is part of the Dow Historical Collection, which includes a sizable group of public-relations ephemera and advertisements from the 1920s to 2006.