The Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals promises a standardized method for identifying and communicating chemical hazards throughout the world. More than 60 countries have adopted GHS, which was created and published by the United Nations.

The system provides, among other resources, the information governments need for establishing a hazard communication system that complies with basic GHS requirements; in the United States, OSHA used GHS as the basis for HazCom 2012, a comprehensive update to its Hazard Communication Standard.

One benefit of the GHS standard is that it lays out the design and information requirements for GHS labels, which communicate to workers and emergency personnel certain pieces of information about hazardous chemicals through symbols, signal words, and clear hazard statements.

Learn more about GHS with Graphic Products’ Best Practice Guide to GHS Labeling. The free guide provides background information on GHS, explains the chemical classification process, and explains labeling requirements for Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) and GHS container labels.

What Are the GHS Labeling Changes?

The latest GHS update (known as the sixth revised edition) went into effect in 2015. It included numerous updates and edits to the current standard, mostly regarding the chemical classification process, with a few minor changes recommended for GHS labels.

  • New hazard category: The update introduced label elements and a new hazard category for pyrophoric gasses, which may ignite spontaneously when exposed to air. The update includes guidance for creating pyrophoric gas labels, including a symbol (Flame), signal word (“Danger”), and hazard statement (“May ignite spontaneously if exposed to air”).
  • New hazard class: Desensitized explosives are now their own hazard class in the latest revision; the update also provides instructions for communicating those hazards on an SDS.
  • Pictograms: The update clarified that pictograms should only appear as part of GHS labels, and not independently.
  • Additional guidance for preparing an SDS: The update includes information (such as safety characteristics and test results) that aren't required on an SDS but which may be helpful for communicating hazards.
  • Multiple classifications: The update addresses how to label flammable gasses or gas mixtures that are classified in one or more GHS categories. In those instances, all classifications should be referenced on the Safety Data Sheet (SDS), and all symbols, signals, and hazard statements should be included.

How Can Companies Create GHS-Compliant Safety Data Sheets and Container Labels?

As countries around the world adopt GHS, the companies that do business in those countries must generally update their SDSs and GHS labels to comply with the standard. Here’s a quick primer on each.

Safety Data Sheet (SDS)

GHS introduced the Safety Data Sheet as a coherent, standardized approach for communicating chemical hazards. An SDS includes 16 sections; these include helpful information for workers shipping and handling dangerous chemicals, including any hazards, first-aid measures for responding to exposure, fire-fighting measures, physical and chemical properties, environmental concerns, and more.

The latest version of GHS includes instructions for communicating hazards related to pyrophoric gasses and desensitized explosives on SDSs, as well as information about hazard communication when chemicals or mixtures are classified in one or more GHS categories.

Get an overview of SDS basics, including the origins, structure, and importance of the document, and learn more about the 16 essential sections of an SDS.

GHS Container Label

Old chemical container labels could follow any number of different standards, so they often bore little resemblance to each other, didn’t always identify all necessary information, and offered little in the way of coherent hazard communication.

GHS container labels, meanwhile, use six elements to break down and communicate a chemical’s hazards in an easy-to-read format. These components may be rearranged on a given label, but each must be included for full GHS compliance. The six building blocks are as follows:

  • Signal word: This word—either “Danger” or “Warning”—communicates the severity of the hazard posed by the material. Less serious hazards may not require a signal word.
  • Hazard statement: These standardized phrases outline the dangers and risks associated with a specific hazard.
  • Precautionary statement: These statements outline the recommended steps for preventing or minimizing the effects of exposure to the hazardous material within. The latest update to the GHS system includes precautionary statements for desensitized explosives and pyrophoric gasses.
  • Pictogram: Each GHS container label must display pictograms that offer visual cues for the kind of hazard the certain chemical poses. In all, there are nine pictograms to choose from. Each pictogram must appear in black, on a white background, inside a red diamond-shaped border in order to comply with GHS requirements. The latest GHS update specifies that pictograms must appear as part of a GHS label, and not independently.
  • Product identifier: This is the name of the material (which may include chemical names when appropriate) and should match the identifier provided on the SDS.
  • Supplier identification: All contact information for the material’s supplier must be included on a GHS label.

What's the Difference Between GHS and HazCom 2012

GHS offers an internationally-standardized way to identify chemical hazards, and to communicate information about those hazards. Roughly 70 countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, and Mexico, have adopted at least part of the GHS standard.

Each of those countries have their own rules based on elements of GHS. In the United States, the set of OSHA regulations that govern the labeling of chemical hazards is called HazCom 2012.

HazCom 2012 applies to chemical classification and labeling for companies that send and receive chemicals within the United States; companies shipping internationally must comply with both HazCom 2012 and the other country's hazard communication standard.

Refer to Graphic Products’ free Best Practice Guide to HazCom 2012 for more information on chemical labeling for companies that work within the United States, and read more about the similarities and differences between GHS and HazCom 2012.

GHS Labeling Solutions

Graphic Products has produced a GHS infographic that breaks down the importance of GHS, how GHS works around the world, and what information must be included on SDSs and container labels.