Aligns with United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labeling of Chemicals

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) groundbreaking revisions to the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) are now final. OSHA’s central purpose in making its major modifications is to align the HCS with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System (GHS), adopted in 2003, to achieve worldwide uniformity in classifying and labeling chemicals. OSHA’s goal is that such uniformity will reduce confusion and ensure improved quality and additional productivity in connection with chemical hazards in the workplace.  

The recently published HCS — six years in the making — represents OSHA’s most significant rulemaking in more than a decade and the most substantial changes to the HCS since its inception nearly 30 years ago. These changes will affect more than 40 million workers across five million workplaces in the United States that use, store or transport chemicals, including nearly 100,000 chemical manufacturers, importers and distributors. All such employers across myriad industries, no matter their size, must comply.  

According to OSHA, the revised HCS will reduce fatalities and injuries and illnesses. While OSHA estimates the annualized cost of compliance with the revised HCS at nearly $100 million, it also estimates a net annualized savings to employers of $754 million due to reduced safety and health risks, cost reductions and productivity improvements. Compliance with the revised HCS is scheduled to take place in several stages, with complete implementation accomplished on June 1, 2016.  

Key Categories and Requirements

The revised HCS (which OSHA is calling “HazCom 2012”) maintains and expands upon the core elements of the original HCS:  

Hazard Classification: Provides specific criteria for classification of health and physical hazards as well as classification of mixtures of chemicals.  

Labeling: Requires chemical manufacturers and importers to assess the hazards of the chemicals they manufacture and/or import and then provide a label that includes a “harmonized” signal word, pictogram, hazard statement (for each hazard class and category) and precautionary statement.  

Safety Data Sheets: Prescribes a new protocol for the disclosure of chemical hazard information within a specified 16-section format.  

Information and Training: Requires employers to train employees on the new labeling elements as well as safety data sheet format  

The revised HCS is intended to achieve a marked improvement in employee safety and reductions in workplace injuries and illnesses. And while OSHA now requires specific classification of those chemicals that are of acute toxicity (previously an employer simply had to indicate such level of hazard), it has not included all five of the GHS’s categories of toxicity, only the ones that are relevant to worker protections and occupational hazards. In this regard, with the modified HCS, OSHA has added advanced training requirements and obligates employers to create written hazard communication programs specific for their respective workplaces. The GHS, on the other hand, has no such requirements, given that the GHS, agreed to by governments, industry and labor, is an outgrowth of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development’s concern and efforts to harmonize classifications in order to further international trade.  

Key Deadlines for Compliance and Implementation

The important deadlines for HazCom 2012 at this time are as follows:  

December 1, 2013: Training of employees with respect to the new labeling and safety data format.  

June 1, 2015: Compliance with the new classification, labeling and safety data sheet requirements.  

June 1, 2016: Implementation of new written hazard communication program and additional training for newly identified physical or health hazards.  

Options for Employers

In the meantime, employers have the option of continuing to comply with the existing HCS requirements, complying with HazCom 2012, or transitioning to HazCom 2012 and complying with each standard in one or more respects.  

Ultimate compliance over the next several years, and maintaining compliance thereafter, could prove to be complicated, time-consuming and expensive for many employers. As a result, employers would be well-served to begin to make efforts to understand and process the new HCS requirements in order to strategically and effectively plan for the future, ahead of milestone deadline dates. Doing so will inevitably minimize confusion, delays and other difficulties resulting in noncompliance with the revised HCS.