OSHA Adopts International Chemical-Hazard Warning Standards

Many U.S. workplaces of all sizes and types have the potential to expose workers to dangerous chemicals. The federal government has adopted an internationally recognized labeling warning system that will provide uniform communication to employees of the specific hazards they face. It is hoped that the new labeling standards will significantly increase workplace safety and decrease the rate of workplace accidents, injuries, diseases and even deaths from dangerous or toxic chemical exposure.

The new regulations were promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency under the U.S. Department of Labor charged with creating and enforcing workplace safety standards. OSHA is amending its Hazard Communication Standard, referred to as HCS, consisting of specific regulatory requirements for how information is transmitted to workers about what chemicals are present in the workplace and how to handle them safely.

The new rule mandates that the HCS come into compliance with a new international chemical-hazard warning system called the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, or GHS. GHS is the product of intense international cooperation that created a standard warning communication system for worldwide use. The United States, including officials from OSHA and other U.S. agencies, was instrumental in the development of the GHS.

In OSHA’s rulemaking process, it was evident in the collection of public comments that the new warning standards have broad support across many commercial and political sectors, including major industrial players, labor unions, scientists, medical and emergency professionals, and business concerns. Although the transition to the new system will have a price tag, in the long run it is expected to reduce costs overall, while simplifying and standardizing the way warning information about chemical exposure is communicated to workplace stakeholders.

Since chemicals move all over the world for commercial and industrial use, standardized warnings also make sense to importers, exporters, global enterprises and governmental regulators.

The new system has some key elements:

  • Required safety training on the new system and on working with the particular chemicals in a given workplace
  • Reaching even “low literacy workers” with the use of color (like red on labels), key signal words (like “danger”), hazard statements (like “fatal if swallowed”) and pictograms (like the skull and crossbones)
  • Chemical importers and manufacturers must develop consistently formatted container labels and more detailed safety data sheets, or SDSs, for each hazardous substance
  • Communication of health risks (like burns, cancer, sterility and more) and “physical hazards” (like fires, explosions and more)
  • Chemicals are classified into “hazard classes” like carcinogens or explosives, and further into subclasses

Although the new rule took effect on May 25, 2012, its requirements will be implemented according to a timetable over the next few years, with full compliance by 2016.

The DOL estimates that when the new standard is fully functional, it will annually prevent almost 600 incidents of injury and disease, and about 43 deaths, as well as boosting “an estimated $475.2 million in enhanced productivity for U.S. businesses.” Still, occupational illnesses and injuries from chemical exposure will always happen despite our best efforts, and there will inevitably be some noncompliance with the new requirements.

If you or a loved one is injured from chemical exposure at work, speak with an experienced personal injury attorney about your legal rights and potential remedies.