Before your employees use the chemicals in your workplace, you need to know if they are taking one very important and necessary step: Are they reading the labels on the container? They should, because labels provide them with important safety information they need to know to protect their health — and maybe even save their lives.

OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR1910.1200) says that every container of hazardous materials that enters your workplace must labeled, tagged or marked with the following information:

  • Name of the hazardous chemical;
  • Hazard warnings;
  • Name and address of the chemical manufacturer or distributor.

Once the container enters your workplace, the chemical may be transferred to other, smaller containers. These containers must also be labeled, unless your employees are using the chemical immediately after making the transfer. The goal is to make every user aware of the information on the label. Tell your workers that if they see a container of some chemical that is unlabeled, they should not use it and immediately contact a supervisor.

Heeding the warning

Why is the label information so important? It warns about physical and health hazards so that your workers can take precautionary measures to protect themselves. Physical hazard information tells them what could happen if they don’t handle the chemical properly. Some typical physical hazards include:

Corrosive — can burn eyes or skin;

Explosive — violent expansion of gases;

Flammable or combustible — catches fire easily;

Reactive or unstable — when combined with other chemicals, heat or water, will burn, explode or release toxic vapors;

Radioactive — emits harmful rays.

In addition to physical hazard information, labels provide health hazard information. This information explains what could happen to the body from overexposure to the chemical. Health hazard terms found on labels include:

Carcinogen — could cause cancer;

Toxic — poisonous, causes illness or death;

Irritant — could cause dermatitis (skin irritation).

The labels may also include special warning words, such as:

DANGER — may cause immediate serious injury or death;

WARNING — may cause potentially serious injury or death;

CAUTION — may cause potentially moderate injury.

Knowing the code

Some labels include instructions on how to properly store and handle the chemical, as well as what types of personal protective equipment to use to avoid overexposure.

Many labels use a system of numbers and codes to communicate the hazards of the chemical. One common system is the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) system. Under the NFPA system:

  • Blue means a health hazard;
  • Red indicates a fire hazard;
  • Yellow refers to an instability or reactivity hazard;
  • White with letters in it refers to a specific hazard (e.g., “OX” on white means the chemical is an oxidizer).

Numbers from 0 to 4 indicate the degree of the hazard, with 0 indicating a minimum hazard, on up to 4 as a severe hazard. The label may also contain a picture of the type of personal protective equipment to use when handling the chemical, such as work gloves, a respirator, and so on.

Your employees must thoroughly understand the coding system used on labels at your workplace. If workers can’t read or don’t speak English, create your own bilingual labels and use pictures or symbols. OSHA is flexible on what type of hazard warning to use, including words, pictures or symbols.

Stationary containers

If you have a number of stationary containers in a work area that have similar contents and hazards, you can post signs or a placard near the containers that communicate hazard information. Process sheets, batch tickets, blend tickets or other written materials can substitute for labels on stationary process equipment. One exception is pipes and piping systems, which are not required to be labeled. However, employees should be informed of hazards of chemicals in unlabeled pipes. (NOTE: Some states, such as California, do require such labeling. Check your state’s requirements.)

But remember, no matter how complete the chemical label may be, it is only designed to give employees a quick summary of the safety and health information. You should always emphasize that they must consult the material safety data sheet (MSDS) to obtain more complete information.

Training tips

Training your employees regarding chemical labeling is essential. Before you begin your training session, make copies of typical labels at your worksite to use as handouts. Then discuss the information on each label and explain the color and numbering system used. Hand out related MSDSs and review the additional information provided. Make sure to explain how to reference the MSDS from the information on the label.

Summarize with the following safety precautions:

  • Read the label before you use a new chemical.
  • Follow the hazard warnings and procedures.
  • Report any missing or illegible labels.
  • Make sure transfer containers have labels (if they aren’t to be used immediately).
  • Never use a chemical that doesn’t have a label on the container.
  • If you don’t understand the information on the label, ask!

Joint effort

Finally, ask your workers if they have had any problems with the labels. Are they too dirty to read? Do they come off the container too easily? Is it too difficult to keep up with labeling new containers? Work out a joint solution. Perhaps a new labeling system is needed, such as a bulletin board with labels coded to the containers.

By actively involving your employees in the solution, you will help to gain their acceptance of the hazard communication program.

Written for Business & Legal Reports ( by freelance editor Marcia Wagshol, who contributes regularly to BLR’s OSHA Required Training for Supervisors and BLR’s Monthly Reminder.

SIDEBAR: 10 Labeling Do’s & Don’ts

To get the most out of label hazard and safety information, keep these tips in mind:

  • Read the label before you start any job with a hazardous chemical.
  • Read the hazard warning as a reminder every time you handle the container.
  • Don’t depend on the label alone for protective information; read the MSDS.
  • Never use anything that doesn’t have a label.
  • Report missing, dirty or illegible labels so they can be replaced.
  • Don’t cover labels so they can’t be read.
  • Place labels on portable containers that hold hazardous chemicals.
  • Check labels on products like cleaning solutions or pesticides that may be hazardous.
  • Follow the instructions on the label.
  • If you have any questions about information that’s on — or not on — a label, ask your supervisor.