With two deadlines under our belt and two more to come, we are now more than halfway through OSHA’s adoption of the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). Let’s discuss five questions we’re hearing from the thousands of safety professionals we work with around the GHS implementation process, along with information to help clear up any confusion during this transition.

1 What is covered under HazCom?

One of the biggest sources of confusion these days about GHS-formatted safety data sheets (SDS) and labels is determining what chemicals fall under the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). HazCom (and by extension GHS) only applies to hazardous chemicals, so if your product isn’t hazardous, it doesn’t require an SDS or label in the GHS format.

Some downstream users of nonhazardous chemicals are demanding SDSs in the GHS format; and some upstream chemical suppliers, afraid of losing business, are obliging these requests by creating otherwise unnecessary documents. This is causing an influx of nonhazardous chemical safety data sheets (some in the GHS format) into the marketplace. Unfortunately, the influx is sowing more confusion into the GHS transition.

So what is covered? Chemical manufacturers and distributors must provide a GHS-formatted, 16-section SDS to downstream users for every chemical with health or physical hazards as defined in the HCS. There is no requirement for nonhazardous chemicals to have a safety data sheet in the GHS format. 

2 What information do workplace labels need to contain?

Consistent hazardous chemical labeling is a fundamental element of the GHS adoption. The GHS aligned HCS outlines six specific elements necessary for labels on shipped containers— i.e., product identifier, signal word, hazard statement(s), precautionary statement(s), pictogram(s) and supplier information; however, it is less direct when it comes to workplace labels.

Officially, OSHA says employers may continue to use their current workplace labeling systems (as long as they were compliant under the old HCS requirements). Another option is to use a combination of the GHS shipped label elements, which in conjunction with employee training and other information available in the workplace, communicates information about all the health and physical hazards to which workers are exposed. Still, many long-time safety professionals feel these options are less than optimal.

A third option is to replicate on the workplace label the hazard information found on the shipped label. Not only does this create more consistency between labels in the workplace, it also mitigates the need for additional training since employees should already be trained on the GHS format.

3 Where are the updated safety data sheets?

It was OSHA’s intention that by June 1, 2015, chemical manufacturers and many distributors and importers would have reclassified hazardous chemicals according to the GHS-aligned requirements, and updated all SDSs to reflect these changes. Unfortunately, many chemical manufacturers took a wait-and-see approach to these updates, or underestimated the amount of time it would take to make the updates, and missed the deadline.

Our best estimate is that as of July of this year, 60-70 percent of documents in the chemical pipeline have been updated, with a lot of those updates having happened right at the deadline (or shortly after). Even so, a good number of those updates have not yet made their way to the SDS libraries of downstream users— and won’t until new shipments come or the downstream users take action to acquire them. For the 30-40 percent of safety data sheets that have yet to be updated, there is no definitive answer as to when they will all be available in the GHS format, since the updates are completely dependent upon the chemical manufacturers.

The next GHS deadline is Dec. 1, 2015, the date by which distributors are expected to only ship chemicals with SDSs and shipping labels in the updated GHS format.

4 As an employer, what do I have to do by June 1, 2016?

There is still a lot of confusion around the June 1, 2016, deadline — the date by which employers should have made any necessary updates to their written HazCom plan and workplace labeling system and trained employees on any new chemical hazards as identified in the updated SDSs they’ve received. While this is the date by which OSHA expected employers to be fully aligned with GHS, that doesn’t mean employers can wait until this deadline to complete every task.

For example, as new hazards or recommended PPEs are identified on incoming SDSs, employers should update employees on those changes before they work with the chemical again.

5 Do I have to comply with HazCom?

As odd as it sounds, OSHA’s transition to GHS has some employers questioning whether the transition applies to them.

This belief speaks to the confusion that still surrounds the GHS adoption. In the United States, the HCS has been revised to incorporate GHS criteria laid out by the United Nations. It is true that the HCS is still the law of the land; however, it is also true that employers covered by the HCS must address the changes brought about by the adoption of GHS.

More specifically, if you are an employer in the United States or Canada with employees exposed to hazardous chemicals, then you are almost certainly affected by the adoption of GHS and must take steps now to A) safeguard employees and B) stay in compliance.

Hazard Communication continues to be the second most frequently cited standard by OSHA. While the GHS transition might cause confusion, it shouldn’t prevent you from enforcing changes that will keep your company compliant.

If you still have questions with the process there are many resources available to help with this transition. Many of today’s electronic EHS solutions can help with the GHS transition by automatically pushing updated SDSs into your account, and tracking training requirements and progress. It’s important to keep in mind that while conforming to GHS might seem like a burdensome process now, it will create more productive, safer working environments for everyone.