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Changes In Chemical Management Part 1: OSHA Adopts GHS

Today over 43 million workers in over 5 million workplaces are covered by the HazCom Standard, which means OSHA’s adoption of GHS creates compliance issues that extend far and wide into American workplaces, especially  industrial facilities. The biggest changes that companies in the United States will see thanks to GHS adoption are to chemical classification, labels and safety data sheets.

This is the first installment of a three part series examining the changing landscape of chemical management. Check out Part II in next Friday's Insider.

Week one focuses on recent changes to the Hazard Communication Standard (a.k.a. HazCom or HCS) by OSHA and the corresponding deadlines and responsibilities every employer with hazardous chemicals must adhere to. Week two will focus on specific steps employers can take to meet the first compliance deadline, December 1, 2013. Finally, week three will examine chemical management best practices and how recent technical innovations can drive HazCom compliance.

OSHA Aligns HazCom Standard with GHS

In 1983, the manufacturing industry became the first industry covered by OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard. In 1987, the standard was expanded to include all industries where employees are exposed to hazardous chemicals. Summed up briefly, the standard covers the right of employees to know the chemical hazards to which they are exposed and outlines the responsibilities of chemical manufacturers, distributors and employers to convey that information in a systematic way to downstream users.

In 2012, OSHA revised the standard to align with the United Nation’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, also known as GHS. It was the most significant update to the HazCom Standard since its inception. At the United Nations level, GHS is a hazard communication model that combines best practices from the leading chemical information systems around the world into a single system that can be adopted by countries and other jurisdictions.  

Today over 43 million workers in over 5 million workplaces are covered by the HazCom Standard, which means OSHA’s adoption of GHS creates compliance issues that extend far and wide into American workplaces, especially  industrial facilities. The biggest changes that companies in the United States will see thanks to GHS adoption are to chemical classification, labels and safety data sheets.

Note: OSHA refers to the HazCom Standard post-GHS adoption as HazCom 2012. It refers to the HazCom Standard pre-GHS adoption as HazCom 1994. Both of these terms will be used throughout the three part series.

To Understand GHS, First Understand the HCS

The HazCom Standard identifies three main groups involved in the lifecycle of a hazardous chemical. For those three groups, HazCom 1994 set out the following compliance responsibilities:

Chemical Manufacturers must evaluate the hazards of chemicals and communicate information about those hazards to downstream users via labels and safety data sheets

Importers & Distributors must provide labels and safety data sheets to downstream users

Employers must meet five key responsibilities: 1) maintain a workplace specific written Hazard Communication Plan; 2) maintain a written inventory of all hazardous chemicals present in the workplace; 3) ensure the proper use of labels and warnings; 4) maintain safety data sheets for every chemical listed on the written chemical inventory and make them readily available to employees; 5) train employees on the basics of the HazCom Standard and the specific hazards of the chemicals to which they are exposed.

For decades, OSHA left it up to chemical manufacturers and distributors to determine how to evaluate chemical hazards and how best to communicate those hazards. This approach resulted in a marketplace where chemicals – even those with nearly identical properties – had very different safety information listed on the labels and safety data sheets.

Under HazCom 2012, the core responsibilities remain intact; however, the standard loses its classification ambiguity and is replaced with specific criteria and instructions for defining chemical hazards and communicating those hazards via labels and safety data sheets using precise language, elements and formatting. To achieve this level of specificity, chemical manufacturers, distributors and employers are tasked with a number of tasks during the transition period.

Looming Deadlines

OSHA’s GHS adoption went into effect on May 25, 2012 and set in motion four major deadlines, the first of which is only a few weeks away. By December 1, 2013, OSHA requires employers to have those employees exposed to hazardous chemicals during their work shifts trained on the new label elements and safety data sheet formats, both of which will be covered briefly below and in greater depths in week two of this series.

The second major deadline is June 1, 2015. That is the date by which chemical manufacturers and distributors must reclassify their chemicals using GHS criteria adopted by OSHA, as well as the date by which updates must be made to corresponding labels and safety data sheets and included in new shipments to downstream users.

The third major deadline is December 1, 2015. That is the date after which distributors can no longer ship chemicals labeled under HazCom 1994. Distributors are given an additional 6 months beyond the June 1st date outlined in the second deadline above to divest themselves of inventory because OSHA realizes there could be lag between the time chemical manufactures complete their reclassification process and the time distributors receive that updated information.

The fourth and final deadline is June 1, 2016. That is the date by which employers must make any necessary changes to their HazCom programs and secondary container label system as well as train employees on any new hazards identified during the chemical reclassification process. By this date OSHA also expects  that employers will have had the opportunity to update their safety data sheet library, dispose of or use up old chemicals and generally have an updated and compliant chemical footprint.

During this time of transition, businesses covered by the HazCom Standard can comply with either the old or the new standard or some combination of the two. However, OSHA cautions, at no time should businesses drop compliance altogether.

Changes to Safety Data Sheets and Labels

With HazCom 2012, safety data sheets get a slight name change – instead of being called material safety data sheets (MSDSs) the M is dropped and they are called simply SDSs. That said, whether called an MSDS or SDS, the function of the document remains the same – to convey robust hazard information to the downstream users of chemicals.

Safety data sheets also get a strict ordering of 16 mandatory sections. The new format borrows heavily from the ANZI Standard MSDSs, with a few tweaks. For instance all of the most important emergency response information (e.g., hazard identification, first aid information, fire-fighting) is in the front half of the safety data sheet, while the more technical, less time sensitive information is in the latter half of the document.

These changes mean every safety data sheet in use in the United States will need to be updated, which in turn means employers should expect their entire safety data sheet library will updated as well. For companies with hundreds or even thousands of safety data sheets, or even a handful of safety data sheets spread out throughout many facilities, it could create a compliance headache. Solutions for managing the safety data sheet “churn” via web-based technology are outlined in part three of this series.

Manufacturer labels on shipped containers also get a refresh with brand new and standardized elements. Under HazCom 1994, shipped labels were performance based – meaning OSHA mostly left it up to the chemical manufacturer and/or distributor to decide what information and where to put on the label and OSHA would decide after the fact whether or not the label effectively communicated relevant hazard information.

With GHS adoption, OSHS has done a 180° turn and now dictates what information should appear on the shipped label based on a chemical’s classification. There are six standardized elements:

  1. Product Identifier
  2. Manufacturer/Supplier Information
  3. Signal Word
  4. Pictogram(s)
  5. Hazard Statement(s)
  6. Precautionary Statement(s)

Once a chemical is classified, OSHA provides all of the information required for items 3-6. In this way, employees using chemicals with similar hazards should be provided with consistent quantity and quality of information, regardless of the product and regardless of the manufacturer. Workplace labels get a different treatment, which will be explored next week.

Road to Compliance

OSHA has been working on GHS for well over a decade and because of that, many safety professionals have learned to tune out anything on the subject. Similarly, for the uninitiated it might be difficult to know where to start getting in compliance with GHS. The starting place is the same for both groups, first accept that GHS is real and the transition is in full effect. The time to get your organization ready is now.

The next thing to know is that to date, OSHA has said unequivocally the biggest issue with the transition to HazCom 2012 has been the extent to which companies were/are not compliant with HazCom 1994. Every company with hazardous chemicals should review the 5 employer responsibilities listed above in the “To Understand GHS, First Understand the HCS” section and ensure they are in compliance with the standard basics.

In “Changes in Chemical Management Part 2: GHS Training Deadline is Now!” the series will do a deep dive on updated safety data sheets and labels and the key steps to training employees on these items for the December 1 deadline. The series wraps up in the third week with a look at best practices for overall HazCom 2012 compliance and how web-based solutions take the pain out of GHS related tasks while providing robust tracking, reporting, and sustainability features.

About the Author

Glenn D. Trout is the president of MSDSonline, a leading provider of on-demand compliance solutions for tracking and managing hazardous chemicals and safety data sheets, GHS compliance, and other critical environmental, health and safety (EH&S) information. Online at or toll-free at 888-362-2007.

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