OSHA Aligns Its Hazard Communication Standard with Global Hazard System

Alerts / March 29, 2012

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has modified its existing Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom) to conform with the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). OSHA has determined that the modifications will improve the quality and consistency of information provided to employers and employees regarding chemical hazards and protective measures. OSHA's standard is published in the Federal Register.


OSHA's HazCom Standard requires chemical manufacturers and importers to evaluate the hazards of the chemicals they produce or import, and to prepare labels and material 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 (formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets) for their exposed workers, and train employees on chemical hazards. Since 1983 when HazCom was promulgated, many countries have passed similar laws but with differing requirements, particularly with respect to how hazard information is to be communicated. As a result, manufacturers that ship products internationally must comply with a variety of complex regulatory requirements.


To reduce the potential for harm from chemical exposures and given the reality of extensive global trade in chemicals, an internationally harmonized approach to classification and labeling was established by the United Nations. The first edition of the GHS was approved by the United Nations Committee of Experts and published in 2003. The GHS has been modified and amended since then and is now ready for worldwide implementation. See status of GHS implementation in 67 countries.


OSHA is incorporating many provisions of the GHS into the proposed changes to HazCom. However, certain provisions of the GHS are not appropriate for inclusion, such as those relating to consumer products and those relating to environmental hazards which fall outside OSHA's jurisdiction. There will be changes in hazard classification and hazard communication, including changes to labeling and safety data sheets. Although the GHS has no requirement for written training programs, employees will need to be trained on the changes. OSHA's position is that the proposed modifications are intended to improve the effectiveness of HazCom by enhancing the quality and consistency of information provided to employers and employees.


OSHA's HazCom Standard considers a broad range of health and physical hazards. The standard is performance-based, providing definitions of hazards and parameters for evaluating the evidence to determine whether a chemical is hazardous. The evaluation is based upon evidence that is currently available and no additional testing of chemicals is required. Any adverse health effect that is substantiated by a reliable study is sufficient for determining that a chemical is hazardous.

Under the GHS, each health and physical hazard or endpoint (e.g., carcinogenicity, explosives) is considered to be a hazard class. There are 28 total hazard classes under the GHS: 16 physical hazards, 10 health hazards and two environmental hazards. The environmental hazard classes are optional classifications under the GHS. The classes are generally subdivided into categories of hazard.

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 the 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. Most chemicals in commerce are not present in the pure state, but are provided as mixtures. Evaluation of the hazards of mixtures is based on data for the mixture as a whole. HazCom specifies that when data of the mixture as a whole is not available, the mixture is considered to present the same health hazards as any ingredients present at a concentration of 1 percent or greater. In contrast, the GHS applies a tiered approach to evaluation of mixtures. The approach provides more detail and specification and allows for extrapolation of data available on the components of a mixture to a greater extent -- particularly for acute effects. The mandatory appendices to HazCom apply to mixtures, as well as to chemicals in pure form.


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.

In addition, the GHS uses a standardized 16-section format for SDSs (formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets) to provide a consistent sequence for presentation of information to users. Sections 12-15 do not require additional information, but the sections must be included in the SDS for formatting consistency and must at least specify that the information is not available. 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 who 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. Other standards that have been modified to be consistent with the changes to HazCom include Flammable and Combustible Liquids (29 C.F.R. 1910.106; 29 C.F.R. 1926.152) and Process Safety (29 C.F.R. 1910.119).

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 (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.

See a side-by-side comparison of the Hazard Communication Standard as originally proposed and the previously enacted standard. Note that while this comparison is only between the proposed rule and the previous standard, changes to HazCom were adopted largely as proposed.

If you have questions about the material presented in this alert, please contact the authors of this alert, Patricia A. Poole (ppoole@bakerlaw.com or 216.861.7661), Darren A. Crook (dcrook@bakerlaw.com or 216.861.6823) or your regular Baker Hostetler contact.

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