Global Harmonization System

Haz it Harmonized or Hindered Compliance with Hazard Communication in the United States?

On March 26, 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) amended the Hazard Communication (HazCom) Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) in an effort to more closely align the United States requirements for hazard communication with the Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) used by other world economies.  Based on the language presented in the OSHA summary for the final rule, the agency has argued that the “modifications will significantly reduce costs and burdens while also improving the quality and consistency of information provided to employers and employees regarding chemical hazards and associated protective measures.”

The modifications to the HazCom standard include:

The HazCom standard was—based on OSHA inspection citation data for select industries—the most cited regulation in the manufacturing industry (NAICS Codes 31-33) between October 2014 and September 2015.  It was the second most cited standard in the transportation and warehousing industry (NAICS Code 48-49) for the same period and seventh most cited standard in the construction industry for that period.  In a nutshell, it appears that even before the transition to GHS-related amendments to the standard, hazard communication was either the least compliant component of an employer’s safety and health program or it had the most common ground for violations, regardless of industry sector.

Many employers are perplexed as to the best way to change existing hazard communication systems to the current GHS-compliant system.  The old HazCom standard was user-friendly and was understood largely due to the three main components (material safety data sheets, training, and labeling) required by the standard.  In addition, it had been around a long time–the original standard was enacted on November 25, 1983, and covered just the manufacturing sector.  A regulatory amendment, enacted on August 27, 1987, extended coverage to all industries where employees are exposed to hazardous chemicals.  With the new GHS requirements, it can be argued that employees who have spoken and understood a specific language for years will now be forced to become bilingual as part of their job performance.

One common problem noted by employers during this transition involves provisions for container labeling internal to each facility; these provisions became effective on June 1, 2016.  Companies must reorient their workforce to a new way of looking at labels and what hazardous characteristics each label presents.  OSHA guidance on formatting for labels is available and is designed to help the transition to GHS compliance.  Information necessary for label generation can be taken directly from the safety data sheet.  Problems can arise when information on a chemical SDS is incomplete, inaccurate, or not disclosed.

Confusion also starts with creation of SDSs by the manufacturer.  A domino effect occurs when SDS signal words, categories, or statements are inaccurate or misleading.  For example, an SDS with a hazard classification listed as “Aquatic Toxicity 3” or “Category 2 Toxic Liquid” would suggest that that the warning statement presented is based on scientific studies (fact).  If no testing or validation can support the use of such statements or warnings on labels, the end user is left to supplement missing data with their knowledge of chemistry or epidemiology.  Manufacturers who generate SDSs need to pay close attention to presenting valid information on their products and to providing documentation that supports why rankings were used on the SDS in order to allow the end user the ability to use their product safely.  If this is not done correctly, the confusion is then pushed downstream to people who have to use that document to keep their employees safe. 

The 2012 GHS amendments to the HazCom standard have also changed the severity rankings used on SDSs and container labels.  Under the old rule, hazard rankings were based on the HMIS or NFPA label systems.  Both systems use a numerical severity ranking of 0-4 (four being the most serious hazard on the ranking system).  Under the new GHS system, however, the numerical rankings are reversed (4 being the least hazardous and 1 being the most hazardous).  Unless employees at a site have had the updated training on the compliant labeling used by their employer, confusing and dangerous circumstances may be presented due to a lack of awareness or knowledge.  

Many employees have expressed frustration, dissention, and resistance to the changes in the training/labeling/safety data sheet provisions that have existed in a certain way for many years.  Human nature suggests that most people are inherently averse to change.  The safety culture in the United States appears to be in a holding pattern, and it is possible that our industries are waiting for case law, citation histories, and injury statistics to assist in determining the most appropriate manner of compliance.

A lack of comprehension and confusion is not only limited to employers who are required to comply with the changes to the standard.  It also is difficult for employees to place reliance on what is being taught to them regarding new GHS components when such confusion by their employers is evident.  Professionals who incorporate safety and health in their daily routine also struggle with the new requirements and the best ways to instruct their clients for improvements.  Especially when the prior systems used by their clients worked well.

So, OSHA’s claim that “…modifications will significantly reduce costs and burdens while also improving the quality and consistency of information…” is easy to say when the culture and safety environment (based on citation histories for hazard communication violations alone) have nothing to do but improve.

Whether the 2012 amendments have had a positive impact on industry has yet to be seen.  A positive impact would be the reduction of incidents and citations and a downward trend of environmental health and safety audit findings related to chemical hygiene.  To suggest that the GHS-compliant amendments have “improved the quality and consistency of information provided to employers and employees regarding chemical hazards and associated protective measures” is premature.  Considering the rate of citations from 2015, the United States has not experienced improvements to quality or consistency.

Conversely, it is a fair assessment to say that the increased burden of GHS compliance into an already well-established system of regulatory requirements has forced hazard communication and chemical hygiene into the visible spectrum.  In that regard, maybe OSHA is right to assume that improvements and harmonization will occur, maybe just not quite in the way they had intended.