In one of its most significant rulemaking efforts in over a decade, OSHA has finalized a rule revising its hazard communication standard to align it with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). The rule will affect more than five million business establishments across the country. Because of its broad applicability, all employers should familiarize themselves with the rule’s requirements and assess their workplaces to ensure full compliance by the agency’s deadlines.

Current Hazard Communication Standard

OSHA’s current hazard communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) is the most significant “right-to-know” rule in the country regarding hazardous chemicals in the workplace. It requires chemical manufacturers to evaluate the chemicals they produce and determine if they are hazardous. It also requires them and distributors to inform downstream employers and employees of the chemicals’ hazards through various communication means, such as labels and “Material Safety Data Sheets” (MSDSs). Employers with hazardous chemicals in their workplaces must have a hazard communication program and train employees on the hazards of the chemicals present.

Since OSHA developed its hazard communication standard almost 30 years ago, a number of other countries have passed “right-to-know” laws that perform the same function, but contain different requirements. As a result, chemical manufacturers who ship their products internationally must navigate differing and complex hazard communication laws.

To reconcile the differences, the GHS was developed under the auspices of the United Nations. It attempts to standardize the classification of hazardous chemicals and the communication of hazards. Once adopted globally, the GHS is expected to improve trade across countries because chemical manufacturers, in particular, will be able to determine more easily the hazards of their products and communicate those hazards to downstream users through standardized means.

To accomplish this, however, countries must adopt the GHS as their own law. This has proven difficult in some instances. OSHA’s final rule represents the culmination of years of work by the agency to conform OSHA’s rules with those used elsewhere across the globe.

Summary of Final Rule

The final rule makes three significant changes in the current hazard communication standard. The first two affect chemical manufacturers directly. The third, impacts any employer in the country using hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

1. Hazard Classification

The rule changes the means by which chemical manufacturers determine whether, and to what extent, a chemical is hazardous. OSHA’s current hazard communication standard requires manufacturers to consider as hazardous any chemical used in the workplace for which there is statistically significant evidence, based on at least one study conducted in accordance with established scientific principles, that acute or chronic health effects may occur in exposed employees. Under the existing standard, a health hazard includes chemicals that are carcinogens, toxic or highly toxic agents, reproductive toxins, irritants, corrosives, and sensitizers, among others.

The new rule standardizes the classification process used by manufacturers. Manufacturers would classify any health or physical hazards of the chemical and determine the “category” of each class. The rule then requires manufacturers to place the chemical into further subcategories.

2. Provision of Labels and Safety Data Sheets

Once a manufacturer classifies a hazardous chemical, it must communicate that information to downstream users. The rule would standardize the labels and Safety Data Sheets (replacing current MSDSs) used to convey this information. OSHA believes these changes would allow employers and employees to understand better the important information conveyed on the SDSs.

3. Training

Largely as a result of the first two changes, OSHA’s final rule requires employers to train employees on the new hazard classifications, labels, and SDSs. Thus, every employer in the country that has a hazard communication program must retrain its employees in the new system.

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