What Is GHS and What Does It Have to Do with OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard?

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Maybe you’ve heard of the Globally Harmonized System.

Maybe you know it’s sometimes abbreviated as GHS. Maybe you know it’s got something to do with OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (1910.1200). And maybe you even know about OSHA’s GHS-alignment of the Haz-Com standard back in 2012.

If you do, that’s great. But if you’d like to know more, we think we can fill you in below.

And if you don’t know the stuff above, we think you’ll really appreciate the head’s up below.

The Globally Harmonized System (GHS)

The Globally Harmonized System, or GHS, was created by the United Nations as a way to standardize the classification and labeling of hazard chemicals to make various national systems more uniform and consistent with one another.

Here’s how OSHA explains it:

In 2003, the United Nations (UN) adopted the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). The GHS includes criteria for the classification of health, physical and environmental hazards, as well as specifying what information should be included on labels of hazardous chemicals as well as safety data sheets. The United States was an active participant in the development of the GHS, and is a member of the UN bodies established to maintain and coordinate implementation of the system.

To really dig deep, you can get the so-called GHS Purple Book to learn more.

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The 2012 GHS-Alignment of OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard

Back in 2012, OSHA decided to revise their existing Hazard Communication Standard (1910.1200) so it would be more consistent with the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). This was often referred to as the GHS-alignment of the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard.

Here’s how OSHA explained their reasons behind that:

OSHA has modified the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to adopt the GHS to improve safety and health of workers through more effective communications on chemical hazards. Since it was first promulgated in 1983, the HCS has provided employers and employees extensive information about the chemicals in their workplaces. The original standard is performance-oriented, allowing chemical manufacturers and importers to convey information on labels and material safety data sheets in whatever format they choose. While the available information has been helpful in improving employee safety and health, a more standardized approach to classifying the hazards and conveying the information will be more effective, and provide further improvements in American workplaces. The GHS provides such a standardized approach, including detailed criteria for determining what hazardous effects a chemical poses, as well as standardized label elements assigned by hazard class and category. This will enhance both employer and worker comprehension of the hazards, which will help to ensure appropriate handling and safe use of workplace chemicals. In addition, the safety data sheet requirements establish an order of information that is standardized. The harmonized format of the safety data sheets will enable employers, workers, health professionals, and emergency responders to access the information more efficiently and effectively, thus increasing their utility.

Adoption of the GHS in the US and around the world will also help to improve information received from other countries—since the US is both a major importer and exporter of chemicals, American workers often see labels and safety data sheets from other countries. The diverse and sometimes conflicting national and international requirements can create confusion among those who seek to use hazard information effectively. For example, labels and safety data sheets may include symbols and hazard statements that are unfamiliar to readers or not well understood. Containers may be labeled with such a large volume of information that important statements are not easily recognized. Given the differences in hazard classification criteria, labels may also be incorrect when used in other countries. If countries around the world adopt the GHS, these problems will be minimized, and chemicals crossing borders will have consistent information, thus improving communication globally.

You may remember this Haz-Com/GHS alignment was a big deal back in 2012 (and for a while after as various deadlines rolled by).

Key Elements of the GHS-Alignment of OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard

There were a lot of changes to the Haz-Com 2012 Standard back in 2012 (click here to see side-by-side versions of the regulation before and after the change), but OSHA called out three big changes, as they explain below.

The three major areas of change are in hazard classification, labels, and safety data sheets.

  • Hazard classification: The definitions of hazard have been changed to provide specific criteria for classification of health and physical hazards, as well as classification of mixtures. These specific criteria will help to ensure that evaluations of hazardous effects are consistent across manufacturers, and that labels and safety data sheets are more accurate as a result.
  • Labels: Chemical manufacturers and importers will be required to provide a label that includes a harmonized signal word, pictogram, and hazard statement for each hazard class and category. Precautionary statements must also be provided.
  • Safety Data Sheets: Will now have a specified 16-section format.

We’ll take a closer look at each.

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Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) Instead of Material Safety Data Sheets

Before the change, OSHA required employers keep material safety data sheets, also known as MSDSs, onsite for all hazardous chemicals at the workplace.

After the 2012 GHS-alignment, OSHA required a new document known as a safety data sheet, or SDS. The primary difference is that the safety data sheet was more uniform.

Read this article for more about SDSs and/or watch the short video clip below from our online Hazard Communication training course.

Required Hazard Communication Label Elements

The 2012 GHS-aligned Hazard Communication Standard also called for required “label elements” on containers of hazardous chemicals at the workplace.

This video sample from our online Hazard Communication training course gives a good bird’s-eye overview of the Haz-Com label elements.

Take a moment to view the sample label below and them we’ll explain the various label elements in more detail below that.

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OSHA Hazard Communication Label Elements

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The following elements are required on hazardous chemical labels:

    • Supplier Identification. Name, Address and Telephone Number of the chemical manufacturer, importer or other responsible party.
    • Product Identifier: The chemical name, code number, or batch number.
    • Signal Words: These indicate the  severity of the chemical hazards. There are two options for signal words: “Danger” and “Warning.” “Danger” indicates more severe hazards, while “Warning” indicates less serious hazards.
    • Hazard Statements: These are short, to-the-point statements that list physical, health, and environmental hazards of the chemical. Each hazard statement has a code, which begins with the letter H and is followed by three digits. According to the HCS, only the hazard statement phrase is required for labeling.
    • Precautionary Statements: These describe recommended measures to take to minimize or prevent adverse effects resulting from exposure to the hazardous chemical or improper storage or handling of the chemical. There are four types of precautionary statements. These are brief and meant to convey important information rapidly. An example would be““Keep away from heat, spark and open flames.”
    • Pictograms: These are graphic symbols used to communicate specific information about the hazards of a chemical. There are nine pictograms in use on GHS aligned labels, but only eight of them fall under OSHA’s jurisdiction, as one is used for environmental hazards.

Supplemental Information: In addition to these required label elements, chemical manufacturers may also opt to include supplementary information, such as expiration dates of products, recommended PPE or other pertinent details.

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Hazard Classifications

The OSHA Haz-Com standard now separates hazards into three groups: health, physical and environmental. Classification of the hazards is then based upon 16 physical hazards, 10 health hazards, and 2 environmental hazards.

Each hazard classification is then further divided into categories, according to different severity levels. Categories are rated 1-4, with 1 as the most severe.

After the above steps, chemical manufacturers are to compare those hazards found with Appendix C of the HCS and select the appropriate label elements.

Conclusion: The GHS-Alignment of Hazard Communication

We hope that helps get you up to speed on the 2012 GHS-alignment of the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard and what exactly GHS, or the Globally Harmonized System, is.

Remember that OSHA’s Haz-Com Standard is designed to forward an employee’s “right to know” about the chemical hazards in their workplace.

This online hazard communication training course is a good way to help with that.

Let us know if you have more questions about GHS or the OSHA Hazard Communication regulation.

And don’t forget to download the free guide below.

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Effective EHS Training: A Step-by-Step Guide

Learn how to design, create, deliver, and evaluate effective EHS training by following these best practices with our free step-by-step guide.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. Jeff has worked in education/training for more than twenty years and in safety training for more than ten. You can follow Jeff at LinkedIn as well.

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