Dealing with revisions to OSHA’s hazcom standard

How will the proposed revisions to OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (incorporating key GHS principles) impact the daily life of workers?

Responding is Kim Peterson, CHMM, director of environmental, health and safety, Safetec Compliance Systems, Vancouver, WA. 

Answer: OSHA’s final rule to revise its Hazard Communication Standard (1900.1200) to incorporate certain aspects of the Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labeling of Chemicals has been awaiting promulgation since October 2011. Although no one is certain when the revised standard will make its debut in the Federal Register, one thing is for certain: Once approved, it will change hazard communication as workers now know it.

Existing hazcom standard

Currently, OSHA’s hazcom standard requires employers to identify hazards and ensure all containers are properly labeled to convey those hazards. Additionally, OSHA requires employers to provide a written document, typically a Material Safety Data Sheet, to communicate the hazards to employees. However, OSHA does not specify what format these labels and MSDSs need to have. OSHA’s current performance-based approach to the hazcom standard has resulted in a wide variety of label systems (NFPA, HMIS, etc.) and MSDS formats available to the employer. 

Proposed GHS

GHS, by contrast, will require U.S. employers to follow standard label and Safety Data Sheet formats. Labels will follow a strict nine-element format, and SDSs will include the same nine elements plus an additional seven. Several of the elements will be new and very different from what U.S. workers are used to, including signal words, hazard statements, pictograms and precautionary statements.

Educated workers are safe workers

The challenge that GHS will bring to the employee on the work floor is being able to quickly discern what the hazard is and what they need to do to stay safe. The challenge for employers will be developing an effective hazcom training platform to ensure employees are familiar with both the old and new labeling and MSDS formats and requirements until the transition time to the new GHS standard is complete (employers will have two years).

For example, it also will be important for employees to learn what each new hazard classification means and how to associate the correct pictogram with those hazards. However, it will be equally important for employees to understand the nuances between GHS, NFPA and HMIS. To illustrate, NFPA denotes the most severe hazard with a “4,” whereas GHS denotes it with a “1.” Although OSHA ensures GHS category numbers will be accompanied by label elements, which will clearly indicate the degree of hazard, there is bound to be some confusion among workers as the transition is made.

Considering this classification issue and the fact that some manufacturers will begin sending SDSs with their chemical products as soon as GHS is announced, employers should begin to educate themselves on what OSHA will be requiring with respect to the new hazcom standard. This way, they can begin to effectively design their hazcom standard training programs, as well as other written programs (JSAs, hazard assessments, etc.) before the regulation is fully enforced.

OSHA requires Material Safety Data Sheets for every chemical, right?

Answer: For the past several years, OSHA has listed the Hazard Communication Standard as one of the top 10 most violated standards. Therefore, it is clear that OSHA takes communicating hazards associated with chemicals very seriously. The hazcom standard actually is quite simple in its purpose, which is: “to ensure that the hazards of all chemicals produced or imported are evaluated, and that information concerning their hazards is transmitted to employers and employees. This transmittal of information is to be accomplished by means of comprehensive hazard communication programs, which are to include container labeling and other forms of warning, material safety data sheets [MSDS] and employee training.” [29 CFR 1910.1200(a)(1)]

The hazcom standard seems to be very clear when it comes to MSDS rules; employers must have an MSDS for each hazardous chemical used in the workplace. This is where things get a little tricky. What does OSHA mean by “hazardous chemical”? According to OSHA, a hazardous chemical “means any chemical which is a physical hazard or a health hazard.” [29 CFR 1910.1200(c)] But before you panic about trying to get an MSDS for everything from your office supplies to that drum of hazardous waste, make sure you review the 12 exceptions to the MSDS rule.

Hazardous materials exempt from hazcom standard

OSHA lists 12 categories of hazardous materials that are not subject to any aspect of the hazcom standard. These are listed in section 1200(b)(6):
• Hazardous waste (regulated by EPA); 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(6)(i)
• Hazardous substance (EPA again); 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(6)(ii)
• Tobacco or tobacco products; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(6)(iii)
• Wood or wood products that have not been treated with hazardous chemicals; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(6)(iv)
• Articles that are not of a fluid or particle nature; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(6)(v)
• Food or alcoholic beverages intended for personal consumption; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(6)(vi)
• Any drug, as defined by the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(b)(vii)
• Cosmetics packaged for sale to consumers or intended for personal use; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(b)(viii)
• Any consumer product regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Act; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(b)(ix)
• Nuisance particles that do not pose physical or health hazards; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(b)(x)
• Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(b)(xi)
• Biological hazards; 29 CFR 1910.1200(b)(b)(xii)

Facilities exempt from MSDS requirement

One additional MSDS exemption pertains to facility operations. MSDSs are not required at facilities where employees handle chemicals in sealed containers, but do not open them under normal conditions (such as in marine cargo handling, warehousing or retail sales) unless an employee requests it. However, if an MSDS is delivered with the purchased chemical, the employer must keep it on hand. Labels are still required by OSHA for these facilities. This exemption is listed in Section 1200(b)(4).

OSHA’s hazcom standard exemptions exemplify how regulations are all about definitions. Next time you are in doubt about whether or not you are in compliance, you may want to start with the definition section of the regulation.

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