In 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) modified its existing Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom) (29 CFR 1919.1200) to conform with the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). OSHA's position is that the modifications will improve the quality and consistency of information provided to employers and employees regarding chemical hazards and protective measures.

HazCom requires chemical manufacturers and importers to evaluate the hazards of the chemicals they produce or import and to prepare labels and safety data sheets (SDSs) to convey the hazard information to their downstream customers. In addition, employers with hazardous chemicals in their workplaces are required to label the chemicals, have available SDSs for their potentially exposed workers and train employees on chemical hazards.

OSHA is incorporating many provisions of the GHS into the proposed changes to HazCom. There will be changes in hazard classification and hazard communication, including changes to labeling and safety data sheets (formerly material safety data sheets). Although the GHS has no requirement for written training programs, OSHA requires employers to train employees on the changes to HazCom.

The GHS definitions of hazards are more specific and detailed than those under HazCom. For example, under HazCom, a chemical is either an explosive or it is not. Under GHS, there are seven categories of explosives, and assignment to these categories is based on the classification criteria provided in very detailed mandatory appendices to the revised HazCom Standard.

Hazard communication requirements under the GHS are directly linked to the hazard classification. For each class and category of hazard, a harmonized signal word (e.g., Danger), pictogram (e.g., skull and crossbones) and hazard statement (e.g., Fatal if Swallowed) are specified. These specified elements are referred to as the "core information" of a chemical. Where the previous standards gave manufacturers and importers discretion to use whatever language they believed was appropriate to convey hazards, the GHS regulations provide the specific information to be included based on the hazard classification. Precautionary statements are required on GHS labels to describe recommended measures that should be taken to protect against hazardous exposures, and product identifier and supplier information must also be provided.

The GHS uses a standardized, 16-section format for SDSs to provide a consistent sequence for presentation of information to users. Items of primary interest to potentially exposed employees and emergency responders are presented at the beginning of the documents. Headings for the sections are standardized to facilitate locating information of interest.

The GHS does not include requirements for a written hazard communication program or for employee training. Although OSHA is not proposing any substantive changes to the requirements for a written HazCom program (i.e., a written program will continue to be required), as a practical matter, additional training will be necessary under the proposed rule to ensure that employees understand the elements of the new system.

The proposed modifications to HazCom primarily affect manufacturers and importers of hazardous chemicals that will be required to re-evaluate chemicals according to the new criteria in order to ensure they are classified appropriately. For health hazards, this will necessitate placing the chemical in the appropriate hazard category as well as the hazard class. For physical hazards, the new criteria are generally consistent with current Department of Transportation requirements for transport. Chemical users will be required to integrate the new approach into their HazCom program, assuring that employees understand the pictograms and other information on labels and SDSs.

The new regulations require covered employers to complete all training regarding the new label elements and SDS format by December 1, 2013. However, full compliance with all provisions for preparation of new labels and safety data sheets is not required until June 1, 2015. Distributors will have an additional six months, or until December 1, 2015, to distribute containers with manufacturers' labels in order to accommodate those containers they receive close to the compliance date. Finally, employers will be given until June 1, 2016, to update their hazard communication programs or any other workplace signs, where applicable.