Understanding OSHA’s HAZCOM and Globally Harmonized System (GHS) Standards
Hazardous chemicals in the workplace kill an estimated 50,000 workers each year in the United States, and an estimated 190,000 workers are hurt or become ill because of chemical exposure. Even these numbers are a low estimate; some illnesses caused by chemicals (including cancer) affect workers years later, and so might go undetected.
Industries around the world use a global standard to prevent deaths and injuries from chemical hazards with a standardized hazard communication system known as the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). Every safety manager dealing with chemicals on site needs to know the ins-and-outs of the GHS, including how to use signal words, create hazard statements, and draft precautionary statements.
Consistent Communication About Hazardous Chemicals
Seeing a need for major changes in communicating about chemical hazards, leaders at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development called for a global standard for hazardous communications. After nine years of negotiation, the U.N. released the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, commonly referred to as The Purple Book. The global system benefits individuals, companies, and countries on a worldwide level by:
- Facilitating international trade of chemical products.
- Enhancing the protection of human health and the environment.
- Reducing redundant and costly testing and evaluation of multiple classification systems.
- Increasing awareness of hazards, resulting in safer use of chemicals in the workplace and in the home.
Countries adopting the GHS implement the criteria through their own regulatory authority, rather than simply incorporating the text of the GHS into their national requirements. The GHS Document gave the regulatory agencies of different countries a foundation for improving existing national programs for classification of hazardous substances and related protective measures. This standardization of chemical hazard information helps ensure worker safety and the public as chemicals move through the product life cycle from country-to-country.
The United Nations Economic Commission monitors adherence to the GHS. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) aligned its Hazardous Communication Standard (HazCom or HCS) with the GHS in 2015.
Precautionary Statements, Signal Words, and Hazard Statements: the Core of the GHS
The standard set of rules in the GHS takes the guesswork out of hazardous communication. To comply, companies must use a standard format to label hazardous chemicals. The labels need to include the classification of hazardous chemicals, signal words, and a precautionary statement.
Safety Data Sheets
Manufacturers, distributors, and importers of chemical substances must provide Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) (formerly MSDSs or Material Safety Data Sheets) to downstream users for certain hazard classes. Depending upon where the product falls in the classification of chemical hazards, safety information to be reported may include:
- the properties of the chemicals;
- physical, environmental, and health hazards; and
- how to handle, store, and transport the chemicals safely.
An example of this is the transportation of chemical hazards by sea. Shippers must include the potential environmental hazards of chemicals on SDSs when moving marine pollutants.
To meet OSHA standards, safety data sheets must include all 16 sections in The Purple Book, the international guide to hazardous communication.
- Identification of the product name, manufacturer or distributor and other key information.
- Hazards identification
- Composition/information on ingredients
- First aid measures
- Firefighting measures
- Accidental release measures
- Handling and storage
- Exposure controls/personal protection
- Physical and chemical properties
- Stability and reactivity
- Toxicological information
- Ecological information
- Disposal considerations
- Transport information
- Regulatory information
- Other information including the date the safety data sheet was prepared or last revised.
Manufacturers develop hazard statements based on specific criteria for the classification of health and physical hazards developed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and other safety organizations. Thus, labels and safety data sheets accurately reflect the degree of hazard. For example, when determining whether a substance will be classified as a flammable liquid, a chemist reviews certain criteria including the flash point of the liquid. Based on this hazard classification, the chemical’s package will include a statement like this: “Keep away from heat/sparks/open flame/hot surfaces.”
Labels and Signal Words
The GHS and HCS require chemical manufacturers and importers to label packages with harmonized signal words, GHS pictograms, and hazard statements for each category of a class of hazardous chemicals. The new label elements enable employees exposed to workplace chemicals to more quickly obtain and understand information about the hazards of chemicals. An example of an effective label is “Causes damage to kidneys through prolonged or repeated exposure when absorbed through the skin.”
Manufacturers must include a precautionary statement regarding transportation and storage of a hazardous product The statement needs to recommend measures to minimize or prevent adverse effects resulting from hazard chemical exposure, or improper handling. For example, products with ingredients with acute toxicity exceeding a certain concentration must include a hazard statement.
Training Teams to Communicate About Hazardous Chemicals
The GHS states the importance of training all target audiences to recognize and interpret labeling and/or SDS information, and to take appropriate action in response to chemical hazards. Training requirements should be appropriate for the nature of the hazard. Key stakeholders include workers, emergency responders, and also those responsible for developing labels and SDSs. To a certain extent, the training needs of additional audiences have to be addressed. These should include training for persons involved in chemical transportation, and strategies required for educating consumers in interpreting label information on products that they use.
OSHA requires training employees on the new elements of chemical labels, like pictograms/icons and signal words, and the SDS format. The HSI online course Hazard Communication (HAZCOM GHS) gets employees and managers up-to-speed conveniently and concisely.
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