Working in the safety and health field, I knew that OSHA rules took a long time to develop and perhaps longer to change. I did not really think about how long it took or why. I just knew that in my thirty-plus years of protecting workers and watching OSHA that developing new rules or strengthening/ updating existing ones was a long process. Then I came upon Leo Gerard’s article about how these delays in rule making are costing lives.1 At least a dozen lives per day! And, as Mr. Gerard points out, these are lives taken, not given, because, and I love this quote, “no one volunteers to sacrifice their life for corporate profit.”

So, how long does it take OSHA to develop and issue safety and health standards? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found a wide range of rule-making timelines, the shortest being 15 months and the longest 19 years.2 On average, it took OSHA seven years and nine months to issue a final standard! But perhaps more important, it is getting worse. The time it took to finalize standards in the 1990s was 70 percent longer than in the 1980s. And it was another 30 percent longer in the 2000s.

Why does it take so long for OSHA to issue a new standard, and why has it been getting harder in recent times? Agency officials at the GAO and outside experts cite several key factors. The major ones are the increased number of procedural requirements put in place since 1980 and the high standard of judicial review that is needed. The main components of necessary procedures encompass the significant data challenges and complex requirements for OSHA to demonstrate the need for the new regulations. Data challenges range from a lack of available scientific data for some hazards to having to review and evaluate many scientific studies. Where available data is scarce, OSHA has limited access to worksites to collect the necessary information to demonstrate the need for a new standard. Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is having to show economic feasibility, where OSHA must demonstrate that affected industries will be able to maintain long-term profitability and competitiveness.

But the GAO report points out that OSHA standards save lives, citing a 55 percent reduction in machine-related deaths between 1990 and 1997 due to OSHA’s lockout/tagout standard as one example. Another example is OSHA’s revision of the Hazard Communication standard, which is the subject of this article. The revised standard incorporates the United Nations Globally Harmonized System (GHS) for hazardous chemicals and will protect workers from dangerous chemicals while also helping American businesses compete worldwide. OSHA estimates that the revised standard, now aligned with the UN’s global chemical labeling system, will save an additional 43 lives annually. In addition, American businesses will save an estimated $475.2 million due to enhanced productivity.3

A new Hazard Communication standard—with GHS

The goal of the revised Haz Comm, as it is affectionately known, is to better protect workers from hazardous chemicals. According to Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, “Revising OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard will improve the quality, consistency, and clarity of hazard information that workers receive, making it safer for workers to do their jobs and easier for employers to stay competitive in the global marketplace.”3 The changes were made to incorporate the best from the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, also known as GHS. The new Globally Harmonized System aims to reduce confusion about chemical hazards in the workplace, improve the understanding of hazards, and help with safety training. The changes were long overdue as the existing standard approaches its thirtieth birthday. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels said it well: “OSHA’s 1983 Hazard Communication standard gave workers the right to know. As one participant expressed during our rule-making process, this update will give them the right to understand as well.” 3

Definition of GHS and its history

The Globally Harmonized System is not a regulation or a mandatory standard. It is a system for standardizing or harmonizing information on dangerous chemicals internationally. The purpose of GHS is to create a logical, comprehensive, and standardized system to communicate information about chemical hazards to workers, employers, consumers, emergency responders, transporters, and anyone who might come in contact with these materials worldwide.

The Globally Harmonized System was needed because from country to country and even just in the United States confusion exists in communicating about chemical hazards. The confusion stems from many different classification systems, using many different symbols, colors, shapes, and pictograms. In the US (and throughout the world) there are many different material safety data sheets. It is not hard to understand the need.

The birth of the Globally Harmonized System was in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Called the “Earth Summit,” UNCED adopted an international mandate calling for “a globally harmonized hazard classification and compatible labeling system, including material safety data sheets and easily understandable symbols … by the year 2000.”4 The International Labor Organization studied the tasks needed to achieve harmonization and identified four major systems that would form the basis for a GHS: United Nations Transport Recommendations; United States Requirements for Workplace, Consumer, and Pesticides; European Union Dangerous Substance and Preparations Directives; and Canadian Requirements for Workplace, Consumers, and Pesticides. A coordinating group was created to manage development of the system. This working group was the Inter-Organization Program for the Sound Management of Chemicals, or IOMC. Work on GHS chugged along for about ten years until September 2002, when the World Summit on Sustainable Development encouraged countries to begin using the new GHS with a goal of full implementation by 2008. The IOMC presented the GHS to the United Nations GHS Subcommittee, which formally adopted the system in December 2002. It was published as the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals and became known as the “Purple Book.”4 Its fourth revision was just completed at the end of 2011.

OSHA actions

Looking at the development of the Haz Comm revisions to align with the new Globally Harmonized System, OSHA beat its average. Where the GAO found that it took OSHA an average of seven years and nine months to produce a final rule, changes to the Hazard Communication standard required just nine actions stretching between September 2006 and February 2012 to become law.5 A relatively short five years and five months.

In brief, the process looks like this:

  • OSHA issues Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in September 2006.
  • After receiving and considering more than 100 comments, OSHA issues a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in September 2009.
  • Following another comment period, public hearings are held and completed in May 2010.
  • Final Rule is published in the Federal Register in March 2012.
  • Final Rule provisions took effect in May 2012.

According to the preamble and introduction in the Federal Register, OSHA says, “The adoption of the GHS will improve OSHA’s current HCS by providing consistent, standardized hazard communication to downstream users.”5 OSHA does recognize that the GHS is evolving and will continue to be updated in the future to reflect new technological and scientific developments. Unfortunately, OSHA clearly points out that “Any future changes to the HCS to adopt subsequent changes to the GHS would require OSHA’s rule-making procedures.” 5 Thus keeping up with change will be tedious.

What has changed?

Before we discuss the revisions to OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard, let us briefly review what Haz Comm is. There are three main components to this “information” standard: labels, material safety data sheets, and employee training. Chemical labels provide an immediate and conspicuous summary of the substance’s hazards. When you pick up the container you can readily see what dangers are present. The material safety data sheets provide more detailed technical information on hazardous ingredients, chemical properties, precautions for use, disposal, and so on. The MSDS are an important reference for exposed employees, safety professionals, industrial hygienists, emergency responders, and health care professionals. Finally, training is required to ensure that employees understand the hazards and know the protective steps to take to avoid exposure, illness, and injury.

As the title of the Purple Book says, the GHS is simply a system for classification and labeling of hazardous chemicals. It provides comprehensive lists of hazard classes for physical and health hazards. Each class is further defined with categories, ranks, types, or divisions with very specific criteria. There are 16 physical hazard classes (see Figure 1) and ten health hazard classes (see Figure 2) plus an environmental hazard class. OSHA expects that all existing hazard communication systems will change to be consistent with the harmonized elements of the GHS.6

The revised Haz Comm mandates changes to three main elements: hazard classification, product labels, and material safety data sheets. All requirements within existing regulations must be modified to align with the GHS. Current hazard determinations are performance-based. Under the revised Haz Comm, hazard classification will follow the specific criteria of the GHS. Chemical producers, manufacturers, and importers must change their labels to include the harmonized signal word (“danger” or “warning”), pictograms, and hazard statements for each hazard class. For an example of the new label format, see Figure 3. The nine pictograms relating to the hazard classes are seen in Figure 4. The third major change required by the new Haz Comm is that MSDS must follow the new sixteen-section safety data sheet (SDS) format. The Globally Harmonized System SDS format is very similar to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) format discussed in a previous article on MSDS.7

How long do we have to comply?

The revised Hazard Communication standard has an effective date of May 25, 2012. But although the rule is in effect, changes do not occur overnight, and OSHA has built in adequate time for completing each task. Employers have until December 2013 to train employees on the new label elements and safety data sheet format. And they have until June 2016 to fully implement all aspects of the new Haz Comm, including hazard classification, new labeling, and training. Chemical producers, manufacturers, importers, and distributors have until June 2015 to fully comply with modifications required by the GHS, with one exception. They may continue to ship products with the current labels until December 2015.

So, embrace change. These are for the best and should have a positive effect both on worker safety and company bottom lines. Get moving, but remember—stay safe!