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GHS: Signs of life

October 1, 2009

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As the U.S. moves forward on implementation companies need to prepare

KEY POINTS
  • The change would mean modification of OSHA’s current hazard communication standard (1910.1200).
  • People who will be most affected by the change include front-line workers, those responsible for transport, emergency responders, and people responsible for developing labels and Material Safety Data Sheets.
  • Concerns with the change include potential costs to small businesses, phase-in timing and impact on other standards, training requirements, and guidance for chemical testing.
By Deidre Bello, associate editor

Work on a rulemaking for adoption and implementation of the Globally Har­monized System for the Classification and Labeling of Chemicals has been slow going for years, but some safety professionals are predicting that once a notice of proposed rulemaking is published, organizations – especially small and midsize organizations – will have to quickly improve or overhaul their hazard communication systems.

GHS includes internationally standardized provisions for the classification of chemicals by their health, physical and environmental effects, as well as for labels on containers and Material Safety Data Sheets. Adoption and implementation of GHS would mean modification of OSHA’s current hazard communication standard (1910.1200), which does not mandate specific language or format for information.

OSHA, which is working with other federal agencies, had anticipated a 2008 release of a NPRM for GHS implementation in the United States but failed to meet its goal. Instead, the agency continued work on preparation of the proposal during the change in presidential administration.

At press time, OSHA spokesperson Richard DeAngelis said the agency was on track to publish and release the NPRM in October. An implementation schedule for the rule would run through 2015, according to OSHA’s semiannual regulatory agenda released May 11. OSHA sent a draft NPRM to the White House Office of Management and Budget on

Commonly cited hazard communication violations
Hazard communication addresses chemical hazards, both chemicals produced ...

May 27; OMB’s review was scheduled to be complete by the end of September, DeAngelis said. After publication of the proposal, OSHA will hold a public comment period and informal hearings before final rulemaking, he said.

The United Nations adopted GHS in 2003 and charged the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe with overseeing its implementation. UNECE and other world organizations had hoped countries would implement GHS, making the system fully operational by 2008. When Safety+Health went to press, 67 countries had made some progress toward implementation. Major developed nations such as China, the United Kingdom, France and Canada anticipated implementation of GHS by 2008, but had not reported updates to UNECE at press time.

People who will be most affected by the change include front-line workers, people responsible for transport, emergency responders, and those responsible for developing labels and MSDSs.

Although adoption of GHS has been widely supported by U.S. industry for its anticipated benefits to worker safety and health and international trade, some safety experts caution that organizations should start preparing now for the change and should expect some growing pains.

Possible effect of GHS

After OSHA published its advance notice of proposed rulemaking about the benefits of adopting GHS and its potential impact on the hazcom standard, the agency received more than 160 comments. A majority of them were supportive, but others voiced concerns about costs to small businesses, phase-in timing and impact on other standards. Those concerns still exist, and more recent concerns are regarding changes to training and guidance for testing of chemicals and mixtures.

OSHA released a comparison of hazard communication requirements, which shows GHS has broad general training requirements compared to the more detailed training requirements of the standard, which cover minimum training requirements, measures of protection, and more.

Regulating chemical testing, evaluation with REACH
Although the Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labeling of Chemicals is intended to reduce a ...

According to notes from a meeting of OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health, OSHA presenters said effects of GHS on the construction industry would involve initial employee training on pictograms, hazard statements and signal words. Preliminary costs to the construction sector are estimated to be about two hours of the health and safety manager’s time in management familiarization and program adjustments, and 30 minutes for all employees handling hazardous chemicals. New signage would be standardized through a third party, and the implementation period would be three years. Officials also said outreach would be provided to contractors, particularly small businesses.

OSHA estimates the adoption of GHS would result in a 1 percent reduction in injuries, illnesses and fatalities over the estimated number for the original hazcom standard. Although GHS is intended to reduce a need for duplicate testing and evaluation, according to OSHA, it does not include requirements for testing substances or mixtures. Instead, the global community relies on guidance from REACH, a June 2007 European Community Regulation that deals with the registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemical substances.

Another anticipated benefit of GHS is reduced time needed to handle and store chemicals through improved operating efficiency. OSHA believes adoption of GHS will:

  • Reduce the burden of having to comply with differing requirements for the same product
  • Facilitate international trade in chemicals, including among small businesses
  • Provide better comprehension of hazard information

“Adopting GHS will not change the frame and scope of the current hazcom standard,” DeAngelis said. “Rather, it will ensure much-needed consistency and comprehension in handling chemicals, it will deliver new efficiencies, and it will bring greater safety and health protection for everyone in the workplace. OSHA believes that the adoption of GHS will build on the successes of the current hazard communications standard in many ways, especially through clearer, more comprehensive labels, standardized data sheets and specific criteria classification. GHS should also benefit businesses by saving time and effort in training new employees.”

Glenn Trout, president of MSDSOnline, a Chicago-based provider of on-demand safety management solutions that can receive and manage GHS documents, believes implementation of GHS will mean a big improvement to worker safety and health, but will be “more laborious” for some businesses ­– particularly small and mid-size organizations. Trout said that although most large organizations involved in international trade already are preparing for GHS and have intensive recordkeeping systems in place, he estimates that between 70 and 80 percent of the market is still doing recordkeeping on paper.

“What this means is every MSDS will need to be rewritten,” he said. Each of these binders might have to change within the window of time OSHA designates and be rewritten or replaced with electronic systems, Trout said.

In comments sent to OSHA regarding the 2006 ANPRM, officials with the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy recommended OSHA “carefully assess the impact of adopting GHS on small business and consider alternatives that would make the transition less costly and burdensome.” SBA officials suggested OSHA consider developing a computer-based or “fax-back” MSDS management program as opposed to maintaining hard copies of the documents and realize that although larger organizations can retain hard copies of MSDSs, doing so is a “very significant cost and recordkeeping burden” for small organizations. SBA also predicted training programs could be highly complex and expensive due to employee training on every hazardous chemical.

Officials with ORC Worldwide – a Washington-based international management and human resources consulting firm with more than 150 organization members – supports implementation of GHS. However, in its 2006 comments on the ANPRM, ORC Worldwide recommended that OSHA limit changes to the standard, include an adequate phase-in period, and provide compliance and training assistance resources. Company officials said its member companies include both chemical producers and chemical users, and both groups had indicated that in general, three to five years should be allowed for full compliance. The reason: Member companies produce, import, distribute and report up to tens of thousands of hazardous chemicals. Some member companies might use up to five different MSDS formats, and “due to translations and information content, as many as 14 different data sheets may be required for each product that is distributed globally,” ORC Worldwide said. Each label and MSDS is reviewed by a team that includes toxicologists, industrial hygienists and lawyers. As a result, reviews could take four to 20 hours per data sheet and label, company officials wrote in their ANPRM comments.

Paperwork or electronic systems

Mismanagement of paper MSDSs can lead to files being lost, misplaced, torn out of binders or not filled out properly – and could contribute to a worker injury or death. Multiple data sheets also have led to major compliance burdens in international trade: In 2006, the hazcom standard covered more than 7 million workplaces, more than 100 million employees and about 945,000 hazardous chemicals products.

Wes Scott, manager of the National Safety Council’s consulting services, said organizations should start considering now whether to go electronic or maintain a paper system. Although upgrading to an electronic system may make management and compliance easier, it is not necessary, he said. OSHA commonly cites organizations for not making MSDSs accessible to all employees. Electronic systems might make access to updated versions of MSDSs easier, but safety professionals need to remember that not all employees are computer savvy or have access to electronic media.

OSHA’s DeAngelis said the agency allows employers to keep their MSDSs on an electronic system as long as they are readily available to their employees, but it is not a requirement. OSHA expects practices among small businesses will vary, with some employers using electronic systems and others maintaining paper copies.

Small and midsize organizations have long experienced challenges with the hazcom standard, Scott said. Stan­dardization of MSDSs will ensure chemicals are better managed to prevent incidents, he said, adding that safety professionals will need to guarantee employees are familiar with new MSDS formats.

Preparing for GHS

Hazard communication has long-ranked high on OSHA’s Top 10 list of most cited violations. In fiscal year 2008 it ranked second on the list with a total of 6,662 violations. Failure to develop and maintain a written program and failure to maintain training were the most cited sections. OSHA officials said its inspectors want to see that workplaces maintain a hazard communication program, provide training to workers on chemicals and hazards, maintain MSDSs, and properly label chemical storage containers.

The Federal Highway Admini­stration notes on its Website that transport of hazardous materials and chemicals has been regulated by federal agencies for years, but progress toward implementing GHS in the past few years shows more movement toward addressing worker and consumer safety and environmental hazards. Since 1995, efforts have progressed on improving workers’ “right-to-know” and worker training, reducing the amount of required paperwork, simplifying MSDSs and revising enforcement policies, agency officials said.

Minimum information on an MSDS should include:
Identification of the substance or mixture and of the supplier ...

Implementation of GHS also would improve the safety of firefighters, first responders and hazcom technicians, said Kelly Burns, master instructor on Hazardous Materials and Weapons of Mass Destruction for the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington.

A harmonized set of standards and labeling practices would eliminate a lot of the “guessing game” during the response to a hazardous materials incident, Burns said. MSDSOnline’s Trout said organizations can prepare for GHS by improving existing hazard communication programs and taking the following steps to remain in compliance:

  1. Maintain a written program specific to your company’s environment. Written programs should include a complete list of all chemicals on the floor, training, and locations for all right-to-know stations and MSDS binders.
  2. Label all products properly. Employers are responsible for ensuring all chemicals are labeled properly and are readable, Trout said. The implications from an incident are costly and include lost productivity, increased insurance costs and workers’ compensation claims, and possible litigation costs and fines for non-compliance, he said. An example of this costly mistake could be a worker who, because of improper labeling, mistakenly cleans equipment with a damaging chemical instead of windshield wiper fluid.
  3. Have an MSDS of every chemical on the warehouse floor, make sure it is available to all workers, and archive everything. OSHA’s hazcom standard specifies certain information must be included on MSDSs, but does not require any particular format be followed in presenting this information. Many organizations follow the American National Standards Institute’s 16-section format.
  4. Provide training. Workers must be trained in a language they can understand. Follow up with providing real-world situations that they can relate to and learn from and then have a worker lead a toolbox talk to show they understand the lesson. Supervisors also should conduct onsite inspections and immediately stop and correct a worker if he or she is doing something wrong.

Trout said it is important to make sure workers are trained properly and avoid shortcuts because, “We have this culture of ‘get my job done.’ It is kind of an American work ethic, which is a great thing, but sometimes it gets in the way of safety.”

Scott added that companies preparing for implementation should read the United Nations’ guide to GHS, known in the industry as the “Purple Book.” It includes degree classification, communication provisions and information on how to apply the hazcom system, he said.

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