Perennially among the most frequently cited standards by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is 29 CFR 1910.1200 – the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). In fact, it was the most frequently cited standard in General Industry for fiscal year 2011.1 Among other things, the HCS requires employers to undertake a comprehensive hazard evaluation of all chemicals used or produced in the workplace. Chemical manufacturers and importers are required to develop an appropriate container label and to create a safety data sheet (SDS) for every chemical determined to be hazardous, and to provide both documents to downstream users of such chemicals. Any employer with employees (including chemical manufacturers and importers as well as downstream users) who are exposed to hazardous chemicals must develop a written hazard communication program and ensure that exposed employees are provided with labels, SDSs and proper training on all of the above. The HCS was first promulgated in 1983 and, while it has undergone some changes through the years, has contained the same basic elements: hazard evaluation, creation of labels and SDSs, training and communication. The basic formula for hazard communication will remain intact, but change is coming. On March 26, 2012, OSHA published a final rule announcing that the HCS will be modified to conform to the United Nations’ Global Harmonization System (GHS).2

The GHS, first adopted by the United Nations in 2003, is an international system for the classification of chemical hazards, and development of labels and SDSs. It is not a system that can be adopted verbatim, but it provides a set of criteria and provisions that regulatory authorities can incorporate into existing systems. OSHA’s goal in conforming the HCS to the GHS, therefore, is not to change what is done under the standard, but to ensure better consistency throughout the United States and between the United States and other countries. OSHA predicts that through better recognition and knowledge of chemical hazards, the final rule will prevent 43 fatalities and 521 injuries and illnesses annually. It also predicts that associated cost reductions and productivity gains will result in an annual benefit to employers of $507 million.

Among the significant changes in conforming the HCS to the GHS are:

  • Hazard Classification. The revised HCS will include expanded categories and subcategories of hazards. For example, under the current HCS, a chemical is either an explosive or it is not. However, the GHS has seven categories of explosives and the category chosen will depend upon the classification criteria used.
  • Labels. Communication of the hazard via labels will be aided by use of harmonized “signal words” (e.g., “Danger”) and pictograms (e.g., skull and crossbones). Precautionary statements will also be required on labels. OSHA will also require the use of red borders around labels. OSHA included this requirement in the final rule over the objection of many employers (based upon the cost of color printing) because the agency believes that red is universally recognized as symbolic of potential danger.
  • Safety Data Sheets. The GHS provides a standardized 16-section format for SDSs. The new format will place at the beginning of each SDS the information most relevant to users of the hazardous chemical and emergency responders. The more technical information will come later in the document. The primary goal is to aid in getting prompt and proper treatment to those exposed to hazardous chemicals and who require medical assistance.
  • Training. The GHS does not contain a training component. However, OSHA feels strongly that training on the revised HCS is critical to its successful implementation and training will therefore be required.

Effective Dates

The changeover to the new system will be phased in over the next few years, as described below. Training will be the first priority. During the transition period, employers will be considered to be in compliance with the HCS Standard if they are complying with either the current HCS or the revised HCS.

  • Covered employers must complete all training regarding the new labeling requirements and SDS formatting by December 1, 2013.
  • Compliance with all of the provisions for preparation of new labels and SDSs must be complete by June 1, 2015. Distributors of hazardous chemicals will have an additional six months, until December 1, 2015.
  • Employers will have until June 1, 2016 to update their written hazard communication program or other workplace signs, if applicable. As stated at the beginning of this article, HCS violations are among the most frequently issued by OSHA inspectors each year. In many instances, employers are cited for HCS violations because they either have no written program in place, or the program has been allowed to become outdated. Other common violations include failure to have SDSs in the workplace and, as with all OSHA standards, failure to properly train employees. The lesson here is that OSHA inspectors have always come to the workplace looking for compliance with this standard. Now, with the transition to GHS criteria, this issue will remain high on any inspector’s checklist. Although the program will be phased in over the next three years, the time to start preparing is now.