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HazCom 101

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No matter what line of work you’re in, there are chemicals all around you, working to make your job easier, more effective, or less dangerous. Refrigerants keep food from spoiling, bleach is a very effective cleaner, and petroleum products are used in everything from lubricants to insulation to heating. These are just a few examples of chemicals most people are likely to be familiar with, but they each demonstrate a crucial point: Though common and practical, the chemicals in use all around us are often caustic, hazardous, or toxic.

Hoping to reduce the frequency of accidents and injuries caused by such chemicals, OSHA developed the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS or HazCom).

HazComOSHA’s HazCom was first adopted in 1983 and had somewhat of a limited scope. In the years following however, the standard has significantly expanded and revised. The updated Hazard Communication Standard seeks to establish a clear set of rules for how chemicals are stored and labeled, and in doing so, reduce accidents and cut costs resulting from lacking or misleading information. To that end, HCS was revised in 2012 to align more closely with the United Nation’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling (GHS).

GHS aims to standardize the labeling and classification of hazardous chemicals between countries to facilitate safe shipping and use of chemicals across international borders. Prior to the introduction and publication of the 1st Edition of GHS in 2003, each country used its own labeling standard, which made importing and exporting chemicals unnecessarily dangerous, time consuming, and costly.

All U.S. workplaces were required to implement HazCom’s 2012 updates by June 1, 2016. These updates include several important aspects of communicating about hazardous chemicals, as well as instructions on the proper deployment of Safety Data Sheets (SDS) — formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) — that include specific, detailed information about a chemical, its hazards, and relevant first aid measures. These new formatting requirements make it easier for people to determine how to safely work with a chemical, and the results speak for themselves.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been a 42% drop in injuries and illness caused by workplace chemical exposure since HazCom was first introduced.

According to OSHA, Hazard Communication was the second-most common “serious violation” in the 2018 fiscal year with a total of 4,552 violations. Serious violations are defined as any violation of OSHA guidelines with significant probability to cause death or serious physical harm which employers either knew of or should have known about.


What is GHS?

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what is ghsThe Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) is a method developed by the United Nations for communicating chemical hazards. Adopted by companies and institutions all over the world, GHS works to create a universal standard for hazard communication. Under this system, chemical containers must all display a specific label with a corresponding safety data sheet. This information helps facilitate the safe shipping and use of hazardous substances.

Before GHS, inconsistencies in labeling made exporting and importing chemicals a challenge, and sometimes dangerous. Countries were each using their own regulations for hazardous material, resulting in different labels and regulations for the same chemical. The lack of international standards increased the risk of accidents because recipients of chemical shipments could not quickly recognize the hazards presented by their packages. As a result of differing labeling from country to country, shipping costs also rose for many companies as the global trade of chemicals grew.

The GHS standard aims to eliminate this confusion by providing clear guidelines for chemical labeling that can be used across borders. Getting everyone on the same page and creating an easier and less confusing system is what led to the development of universal standards for classification of hazardous chemicals.


The UN published the first edition of the GHS in 2003, making it available for implementation. However, it would take a while for these changes to chemical hazard communication to go into effect in the United States. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officially integrated GHS into its Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom) in 2012, requiring the new regulations to be implemented by manufacturers, importers, distributors, and employers.

The GHS unifies several important aspects of communicating about hazardous chemicals, and possibly the most impactful is the standardization of labels. Every GHS label is required to include a signal word, GHS pictogram(s), a hazard statement, a precautionary statement, and contact information for the manufacturer. These labels are one of the most recognizable safety labels, and the standard ensures people from different countries or different industries are on the same page.

Another important aspect of the GHS standard is the use of safety data sheets (SDS). Each labeled chemical requires an SDS, a short document that includes specific, detailed information about the chemical. An SDS is comprised of 16 sections including first-aid information, the composition of ingredients, storage information, and toxicological info just to name a few.

As of 2015, every workplace in the country handling hazardous chemicals will need to be in compliance with the GHS standard that OSHA has aligned with. Not only does this include having the correct labels and SDS’s on hand, but workers should also be trained on the GHS system and how GHS affects the workplace. This way, you can be sure your facility will stay compliant and safe even when dealing with dangerous materials