OSHA's much-anticipated adoption of the GHS will require significant costs and revisions to hazard classification and communication in the workplace.

The basic requirements of any hazard communication system is to decide if the chemical product produced or supplied is hazardous and to prepare a material safety data sheet (MSDS) and label as appropriate. The general objective is to ensure that employers and employees have ready access to information regarding the hazards of chemicals used in their workplaces. The federal government will soon fundamentally change how chemical manufacturers and users prepare and communicate hazard information with OSHA's much-anticipated adoption of GHS.

The GHS is an acronym for The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. It was an idea born out of the Earth Day Summit in 1992. For more than 16 years, the United States and other countries have sought to set this system in motion to promote (1) common, consistent criteria for classifying chemicals according to their health, physical, and environmental hazards, and (2) more compatible material safety data sheets (MSDSs), labels, and other information based on the resulting classifications. The system itself is a voluntary standard. However, countries that elect to implement it will likely impose binding requirements for chemical classification and labeling into their own regulatory process and procedures consistent with the GHS.

Within the US, OSHA will be one of the most affected regulatory agencies by the GHS. Since its inception in 1985, the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) has been a "performance-oriented" rule, giving chemical producers and employers flexibility to adapt the rule to the needs of the workplace instead of having to follow specific, rigid requirements. While chemical manufacturers and importers are obligated under the HCS to assess the hazards of chemicals that they produce, they are not required to follow any specific methods for determining hazards. And while they are required to disseminate hazard information to downstream distributors and users of those products via MSDSs, labels, and employee training, the HCS does not specify the format or warning statements to be used in an MSDS or on a label.

The GHS is not a "performance-oriented" system. Rather, it relies on a comprehensive scheme for hazard classification, MSDSs, and labeling. Under the GHS, every chemical and mixture is assigned to a certain hazard/danger category or class using GHS-defined criteria. Specific signal words and hazard statements will be required on MSDSs and labels based on the category or class of the chemical or mixture. Pictograms will be mandatory on labels under the GHS. Chemical manufacturers and suppliers will no longer have flexibility in (1) determining the hazards of their chemicals, and (2) determining the language on their MSDSs and labels.

It is anticipated that all existing hazard communication systems will need to be changed in order to apply the GHS. Chemical manufacturers, and to some extent employers who use hazardous chemicals, will bear the greatest burden in terms of compliance. Chemical manufacturers will be required to review, revise, and in some cases completely overhaul, how they classify potentially hazardous products consistent with the GHS criteria. Hazard communication programs, MSDSs, and labels will all need to be rewritten. Both manufacturers and employers will need to re-train individuals responsible for reviewing incoming MSDSs and labels. Hazard communication training will also need to be increased and adjusted to ensure that employees who use chemicals understand the new approach to MSDSs and labels. In short, compliance with the GHS will require a tremendous investment of both time and money.

Large chemical companies who do significant business abroad may embrace the GHS for the anticipated trade benefits. Today, most countries operate their own, distinct systems for classification and labeling, making companies prepare and send multiple MSDSs and labels depending on where they do business. The European Union (EU), for example, has relied on its own scheme for hazard classification, MSDSs and labeling for years that is much stricter and specification-based compared to the US's approach to HazCom. Greater consistency in chemical hazard classification and labeling requirements worldwide will make it easier for companies to comply with applicable standards and reduce the costs associated with following different regulations in different countries.

Companies that trade solely within the US, especially smaller businesses, may find the anticipated changes and related costs less attractive. But the GHS was not only designed to benefit international trade but also to increase health and environmental protection to employees who are illiterate or speak and read English poorly. OSHA covers more than 7 million workplaces and approximately 1 million hazardous chemical products across the nation. Our new President and his administration have publicly voiced a renewed commitment to reducing chemical accidents and incidents by improving company communication with workers.

Will the GHS create significantly safer workplaces? Is the EU significantly safer compared to its "performance-based" US counterpart? There are no answers as of yet. Nevertheless, a GHS rule in the US is coming. In 2008, OSHA submitted a draft proposed regulation to implement the GHS for chemicals. The Department of Labor completed its review of OSHA's proposed rule and it is ready to be submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget. As of this writing, US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis had yet to submit the proposal to the budget office. But her delayed submission may have been the result of not yet having a chief of the federal OSHA - a problem solved on April 8, 2009 with her appointment of Mr. Jordan Barab. Mr. Barab is a prominent worker safety advocate and a senior policy adviser who oversaw worker safety legislation for the House Education and Labor Committee. This announcement signaled a clear change in direction for OSHA towards creation and stricter enforcement of workplace safety laws.

The ultimate parameters of the GHS proposal, and the date it goes into effect, remain to be seen. In the meantime, chemical companies should take a close look at their hazard communication programs, identify those areas that will require changes in order to be consistent with the GHS Document or "Purple Book," and plan accordingly to take appropriate action.