WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration announced long-awaited regulations Tuesday to improve labels on hazardous chemicals and make them conform with international guidelines developed by the United Nations.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimated that such labels could prevent more than 40 deaths and about 500 workplace injuries and illnesses from exposure to hazardous chemicals each year.
Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels said labels will be easier to understand and less confusing, especially for low-literacy workers. About 43 million U.S. workers come in contact with hazardous materials on the job.
The process of developing the rules began during the Bush administration, and the rules were initially proposed more than two years ago. The Obama administration is holding them out as a product of a presidential directive last year to streamline burdensome agency regulations and eliminate red tape.
OSHA officials said the latest rules would actually save companies more than $475 million annually in training costs and paperwork. Chemical manufacturers currently have to produce two sets of labels and records: one to satisfy U.S. standards and another to meet the U.N. guidelines.
"Not only will it save lives and limbs, but it will lead to increased efficiency on part of employers who produce and purchase chemicals," Michaels said. "And it will level the playing field for employers to compete abroad."
The rules will be phased in over a transition period and companies will not have to comply with them fully until June 2016.
Elizabeth Pullen, president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, a trade group representing health and safety professionals in the chemical industry, said the new labels will improve protection for workers, employers and chemical users.
Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said businesses generally support the idea of revising label requirements. But he said OSHA went too far by requiring labels to include hazard information about combustible dust — tiny particles that can catch fire as a result of producing chemicals, plastics, metals and foods.
"It's going to create a lot of confusion and uncertainty, which will undermine whatever other value this regulation provides to these companies," Freedman said.
Michaels said the agency is simply treating combustible dust the same way it has for the last 25 years. He said investigations of deadly explosions, like the sugar dust that blew up the Imperial Sugar plant in Port Wentworth, Ga., in 2008, killing 14, have shown that workers didn't have the safety handling information they needed to prevent accidents.
The agency is considering a separate rule that would require many industries to better control combustible dust hazards.
The following is the press release announcement from OSHA:
WASHINGTON, March 20, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- To better protect workers from hazardous chemicals, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has revised its Hazard Communication Standard, aligning it with the United Nations' global chemical labeling system. The new standard, once implemented, will prevent an estimated 43 deaths and result in an estimated $475.2 million in enhanced productivity for U.S. businesses each year.
"Exposure to hazardous chemicals is one of the most serious dangers facing American workers today," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "Revising OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard will improve the quality, consistency and clarity of hazard information that workers receive, making it safer for workers to do their jobs and easier for employers to stay competitive in the global marketplace."
The Hazard Communication Standard, being revised to align with the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, will be fully implemented in 2016 and benefit workers by reducing confusion about chemical hazards in the workplace, facilitating safety training and improving understanding of hazards, especially for low literacy workers. OSHA's standard will classify chemicals according to their health and physical hazards, and establish consistent labels and safety data sheets for all chemicals made in the United States and imported from abroad.
The revised standard also is expected to prevent an estimated 585 injuries and illnesses annually. It will reduce trade barriers and result in estimated annualized benefits in productivity improvements for American businesses that regularly handle, store and use hazardous chemicals, as well as cost savings of $32.2 million for American businesses that periodically update safety data sheets and labels for chemicals covered under the standard.
"OSHA's 1983 Hazard Communication Standard gave workers the right to know. As one participant expressed during our rulemaking process, this update will give them the right to understand, as well," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels.
During the transition period to the effective completion dates noted in the standard, chemical manufacturers, importers, distributors and employers may comply with either 29 Code of Federal Regulations 1910.1200 (the final standard), the current standard or both.
The final rule revising the standard is available at http://s.dol.gov/P1.
Further information for workers, employers and downstream users of hazardous chemicals can be reviewed at OSHA's Hazard Communication Safety and Health topics at http://www.osha.gov/dsg/hazcom/index.html, which includes links to OSHA's revised Hazard Communication Standard and guidance materials such as Q and A's, OSHA fact sheet and Quick Cards.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA's role is to ensure these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit http://www.osha.gov.