Looking Back At The “Right to Know” Act and it's role in reducing chemical hazards.

On Dec. 29, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety & Health Administration Act into law. The bill was bipartisan backed and supported by the country’s workers and medical professionals, both of whom had for years pointed to the dangers and hazards of chemical exposure and unsafe work environments as the causes of millions of injuries and illnesses each year. At the time, workplace hazards (including chemical hazards) were responsible for more than 14,000 American deaths a year, and about 2.5 million job-related disabilities and about 300,000 job-related illnesses, annually, according to OSHA.

OSHA laws made employers responsible for creating a safe and healthy workplace, and established those conditions as a basic human right. It created many of the standards people consider custom today, including setting exposure limits to toxic materials such as asbestos, vinyl chloride and lead, and requiring employers to provide personal protective equipment to their employees. The laws lead to the evaluation and, in some cases elimination, of hazardous chemicals.

When a safe workplace was not afforded, it also gave employees a place to submit a formal complaint, a process that assured their grievances were thoroughly investigated. If an employer was found to be in violation of OSHA law, they were subsequently fined and in major cases taken to court or shut down.

In 1983, OSHA extended workplace safety laws when it published the Hazard Communication Standard. The program required manufacturers and importers of chemicals to evaluate the hazards associated with the chemicals they produce and distribute. The information was required to appear on all container labels, and outlined in the corresponding Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). In addition, employers were mandated to train all employees who would be exposed to chemicals, as well as provide access to the labels and MSDSs. These new regulations became collectively known as the “Right to Know” laws.

“The concept behind HCS is that providing information to employers and employees enables them to take steps to ensure protection in their workplaces. It works to reduce illnesses and injuries,” according to the OSHA website.

Outside of minor changes, such as allowing employers to store digital versions of their MSDSs, the communication standard has remained largely the same for nearly 30 years. OSHA maintains that GHS is a “modification to the existing standard,” albeit a significant one. 

Stephanie S. Beecher is the associate editor of Contracting Profits magazine, a sister publication to Facility Cleaning Decisions.

previous page of this article:
Understanding OSHA's GHS Requirements
next page of this article:
Updates To The GHS Language