GHS is here

OSHA’s updated hazcom standard is part of a global effort
to make communicating hazards easier

  • Classification of chemicals under the updated standard is data driven, which some stakeholders says will produce more harmonized results.
  • The updated rule will require all labels and Safety Data Sheets to adhere to the same format.
  • Although some disagreements exist concerning certain aspects of the rule, most stakeholders say it is an improvement over the current standard.

An employee is unloading from a distributor’s truck three chemical containers from three different manufacturers. The containers all give various warnings regarding the chemical inside: The first container lists its contents as “flammable,” the second as “very flammable” and the third as “highly flammable.”

So which chemical is most dangerous?

It is a trick question – they are all the same chemical, and thus one container’s contents are no more dangerous than the others, despite what confusion the labels may create.

For years, harmonization has not been required for hazard communication warnings on container labels or Material Safety Data Sheets. “In the current system in the U.S., your basic obligation is to come up with an appropriate hazard warning; so every professional got to decide what was appropriate,” said Tom Grumbles, product safety manager for Nexeo Solutions, a distributor headquartered in The Woodlands, TX. “You see very real and stark differences in terms of hazard classification and hazard warnings.”

But this system is changing. On March 26, OSHA published its final Hazard Communication Standard. It is an update to the current standard (1910.1200) and adopts the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, a system that already has been adopted by several countries in Europe and the rest of the world.

GHS explains to employers, manufacturers and distributors how to classify various chemicals or materials, and what is an appropriate warning for them. GHS also standardizes how to display that information – every label and Safety Data Sheet will be identical in its format. (Under the updated standard, Material Safety Data Sheets will be known as Safety Data Sheets.)

Backers of the rule suggest this harmonized approach will improve the consistency and accuracy of classifying and labeling hazardous substances, as well as the ease in reading those warnings. As OSHA administrator David Michaels put it, if the original hazcom standard created workers’ right to know about hazards, then the updated rule creates their “right to understand.”

Harmonized criteria

One of the major changes in the revised standard is how hazards are classified. The updated standard provides specific criteria addressing how to classify health and physical hazards, as well as instructions for chemical mixtures.

Manufacturers and distributors previously had much more leeway in how they classified hazards and how they communicated those hazards.

“I might say ‘highly flammable,’ someone else might say ‘very flammable’ and someone else might just say ‘flammable.’ There  was a great deal of variability,” said Denese Deeds, senior consultant in chemical regulatory affairs for Shelton, CT-based consulting firm Industrial Health and Safety Consultants Inc.

Court challenges

A safety practitioner and a consultant discuss fine points of the rule that could lead to legal battles.

Read more

But if classifications under the new system are effective, they should be exactly the same no matter who is applying the criteria, according to Deeds.

For instance, to determine a substance’s flammability, a manufacturer would take the substance’s flash and boiling point values and apply them to a chart in the rule to determine what hazard category the material falls under. A liquid with a flash point of less than 23° C and an initial boiling point greater than 35° C would fall under Hazard Category 2.

The end result is a more robust and precise classification because it is more data-driven, Deeds said. Once you know the hazard category for the type of material, the standard lays out exactly what warning information is necessary to communicate.

However, experts warn some variances may still exist. “There will still be gray areas that could result in some differences,” Grumbles said, but added that those differences would be minimal compared to the differences seen today. Deeds suggested that any variances seen at first will gradually go away as companies look to see what their competitors are doing differently, and then reassess their own classifications.

Labels and SDSs

The “right to understand” a substance’s hazards is reflected in the revised labeling and SDSs. All labels are standardized, with the same information being displayed in the same place.

Mandatory information on the chemical labels includes a pictogram, signal word, hazard statement and precautionary statements, product identifier, and supplier identification. Much of this information will be based on the substance’s hazard category and derived from charts in the standard. For example, the standard would require the Hazard Category 2 flammable liquid previously discussed to feature a signal word of “Danger,” a hazard statement reading “Highly flammable liquid and vapor,” and a pictogram depicting a flame.

The harmonized pictograms have many stakeholders excited. Michaels called it a “huge leap forward,” suggesting it would help non-English speakers and people with low literacy skills better understand a material’s hazards.

“The introduction of pictograms on our labels is going to be really valuable from a workplace safety perspective because workers will have a visual reminder of the hazards they’re working with all the time,” Deeds said.

Much like the labels and hazard classifications, the old MSDSs would vary from one company to the next, making it difficult for users to find the appropriate information.

However, the new 16-point format for SDSs will help ensure consistency in the presentation of product information, which includes some of the hazard warnings found on the label, according to OSHA. Mandatory information on an SDS includes:

  • Handling and storage precautions
  • Exposure controls, such as OSHA permissible exposure limits and threshold limit values. TLVs are voluntary limits from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists
  • Toxicology information, such as how a body can be exposed and the effects of exposure
  • First aid measures and emergency procedures in the event of an accidental release

This format will have an immediate impact on employers and employees because it will make things easier, according to Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs for the Fairfax, VA-based American Industrial Hygiene Association. No matter what manufacturer or distributor the material comes from, he said, the SDSs will all be the same.

Employers will have until Dec. 1, 2013, to train employees on the new formats and labels. Despite the need for training, some stakeholders suggested that – due to the harmonized format and use of pictograms – it would be relatively easy.

“I don’t think it’s going to be difficult to learn,” Trippler said. “They should be able to look at these SDSs and know exactly what is going on.”

Combustible dust and unclassified hazards

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the updated standard is the mention of combustible dust, which is listed in the “hazardous chemical” category.

“It was our feeling that it didn’t need to be included in this particular standard,” said Robert Kiefer, director of regulatory and technical affairs at the Washington-based American Chemistry Council. Combustible dust is a use-specific hazard, not an intrinsic hazard, Kiefer stated. It exists as a byproduct that goes beyond the substance from which it originates, and its inclusion will create a de facto combustible dust standard, claims the Coalition for Workplace Safety, a group of associations and employers that includes ACC.

But supporters of the combustible dust inclusion in the rulemaking disagree; they argue that although it was not explicitly mentioned in the original regulation, combustible dust has always been covered by the hazcom standard.

“The combustible dust requirement really is unchanged from what we’ve been doing for the last 25 years,” Michaels told reporters during a March 20 conference call on the updated standard. OSHA has issued guidance documents on including combustible dust in hazard communication, and the agency has issued citations for violations of the hazcom standard in relation to combustible dust.

Although combustible dust is a well-known hazard, technical issues surround it, according to Grumbles, including how to evaluate a solid to determine its risk. In situations when a hazard could exist, Kiefer agreed that the hazard should be communicated.

Another area that caused disagreement among stakeholders is a new hazard category: “hazards not otherwise classified.” Originally called “unclassified hazards” in the proposed rule, the HNOC category will address any substance that has known hazards but does not conform to any of the hazard categories.

“What does that mean?” Grumbles asked. “How do you evaluate compliance with that category?”

According to Deeds, the category is used when classifying a substance reveals that it presents hazards but does not fit into any of the pre-existing “neat” categories already set up in the rule. She described the HNOC category as a sort of “holding spot” for the substance until a consensus is reached specifying how the substance should be classified. The UN’s GHS is updated every two years, and hazards are added as needed.

Worldwide safety

Despite disagreements over certain aspects of the regulation, most stakeholders appear satisfied with the final rule – which in its development had broad support from employers, manufacturers and employee groups – and believe it will contribute to a safer working environment.

OSHA estimated that the final standard will prevent 43 workplace deaths and 585 on-the-job injuries and illnesses each year.

“For safety and health professionals, there’s enormous value to the standard in better communicating the hazards of chemicals, making it really easier for safety and health professionals and workers themselves to understand the chemicals they’re working with and implement better controls,” Deeds said.

Due to this ease, Trippler said, safety will improve. But the safety benefits are not limited to the United States – the very nature of GHS means the “right to understand” will be experienced on a global level.

The European Union instituted GHS in 2009, and U.S. companies already are seeing substances featuring GHS labeling, formatting and pictograms, according to Michaels. Because of this global effort, international companies will be able to save time and money by not having to reformat labels and SDSs to adhere to a number of different regulations.

“[GHS] is worldwide now,” Trippler said. 

Post a comment to this article

Safety+Health welcomes comments that promote respectful dialogue. Please stay on topic. Comments that contain personal attacks, profanity or abusive language – or those aggressively promoting products or services – will be removed. We reserve the right to determine which comments violate our comment policy. (Anonymous comments are welcome; merely skip the “name” field in the comment box. An email address is required but will not be included with your comment.)