During the many years I was an EHS regulatory consultant, and then a Global EHS Coordinator of a large manufacturing company, I evaluated many facilities for compliance with OSHA’s Hazard Communication (HazCom) Standard and saw a lot of issues with both the content and management of their HazCom training programs. Often, the causes of those issues were misconceptions about key general aspects of HazCom discussed in training, or about regulatory requirements concerning training itself.

Time and time again, I witnessed the damage that these misconceptions did to employee awareness of workplace HazCom practices and employer responsibilities under the Standard. This is especially concerning because, since the publication of the 2012 final rule that updated the Standard to align with Revision 3 of the UN’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), OSHA has emphasized that employees have a Right to Understand (RTU) the basic aspects of HazCom most relevant to them, and that employee understanding is the proof that employers have fulfilled their training obligations. Given that OSHA published a proposed rule to update the Standard to align with GHS Revision 7 in 2021, and may issue a final rulemaking before the end of 2022, employee understanding of HazCom, and the urgency to get training right, are more important than ever.

But before we can establish best-in-class HazCom training, we need to abandon the popular misconceptions that too often compromise the effectiveness of our programs. Here are a few of the common myths I’ve encountered.

Myth #1: You must train in English. 

Many employers seem to confuse requirements for container labels (which must be in English, at a minimum) with requirements for training. The Standard specifically states that employers must provide training in a language and manner their employees understand.

Remember, according to OSHA, the test of whether you’ve met your training obligations is not whether you’ve done the training, or even that you can document that you’ve done it. The test is that employees understand the training, at least in terms of basic information, such as how they would access SDSs, or the specific hazard classes of chemicals in their workplace.

Generally, if you find that you need to provide an employee with job instruction in a certain manner to get the information across, you should provide your HazCom training the same way.

Myth #2: The HazCom Standard establishes “employee responsibilities.” 

This is a common myth, and potentially a pernicious one. I’ve seen employer training programs that carefully delineate “employer responsibilities” and “employee responsibilities,” and in many cases, the latter category was much larger than the former. The problem is that there’s no such thing as employee responsibilities in the Standard. Interested readers can see this for themselves by browsing the standard online and running keyword searches.

The Standard describes responsibilities for chemical manufacturers, which are, broadly, to classify their products, develop safety data sheets (SDSs) and shipped container labels, and to provide the SDSs and labels to downstream users. The Standard also delineates specific responsibilities for employers, who must develop and maintain a written HazCom Plan and a chemical inventory list, maintain SDSs for all hazardous chemicals and provide access to them, make sure all chemical containers have legible labels in English at a minimum, and provide their employees with HazCom training. But the Standard doesn’t address or establish responsibilities for employees. 

That’s not to say that, as an employer, you lack authority to establish reasonable workplace safety policies, and to require employees to follow them. But we shouldn’t mistakenly think the HazCom Standard itself spells out obligations for your employees or forget the much more significant responsibility for you as an employer to provide your workers with a work environment “free from recognized hazards,” in the words of the General Duty Clause.

Myth #3: Federal OSHA requires annual refresher training. 

I’ve seen many EHS professionals rattle off “annual refresher training” near the top of a list of responsibilities they think OSHA establishes for them. But while some states with federally approved state OSHA plans might require annual training, there’s no annual requirement established in the HazCom Standard itself. 1910.1200 (h)(1) states that employers must provide their workers with effective information and training “at the time of their initial assignment, and whenever a new chemical hazard the employees have not previously been trained about is introduced into their work area.”

That said, even if you do operate in a state that requires annual training, you should try to avoid the mindset that often accompanies it, namely that training materials are just something to dust off and use once per year, like Halloween or Thanksgiving decorations. If you’re thinking about your HazCom training that way, you’re probably not also thinking about keeping it up to date, or conducting it as often as needed. 

For example, if you last conducted your training seven months ago, but introduced a new chemical hazard class five months ago, then you’ve been out of compliance for five months and are putting your employees at risk. 

The key takeaway is to manage your training, rather than to let the calendar manage you. It’s your responsibility as an employer to track changes, such as the addition of new chemical hazard classes or changes to your system of providing access to SDSs, and to ensure that you’re updating and reconducting your HazCom training as needed.

Training and learning software can help you more easily and effectively meet your training needs by giving you the ability to deliver engaging eLearning courses in the languages spoken in your workplace and enabling employees to complete training at their own pace. When considering training and learning software options, look for a solution with built-in course development tools that enable you to convert existing PowerPoint training materials into fully interactive eLearning courses.

Putting it all together

Moving beyond myths and getting HazCom training right is important because it speaks to the foundational intent of the Standard: to ensure that employees throughout the chemical supply chain have the information they need to work safely.

Before the HazCom Standard existed, fatalities and illnesses from occupational chemical exposures were far more common because employees lacked information about hazards of the chemicals in their workplace and about the equipment and practices required to store and use them safely. The purpose of the HazCom Standard, in the words of one of OSHA’s HazCom letters of interpretation, is “to reduce the incidence of chemical source illnesses and injuries.” And one of the most important ways to accomplish that is by providing employees with the information and training they need to work with chemicals as safely as possible.

Try not to see your training program as a “box checking” exercise needed to meet a regulatory requirement, and recognize when you might be tempted to frame HazCom management in a way that minimizes your responsibilities as an employer. Instead, see your training as what it is: a central part of your active commitment and responsibility as an employer to provide all your employees with a safe workplace.