Hazardous materials labeling guidelines recently adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have the potential to cause confusion and expose individuals to harm through misunderstanding of hazard levels, according to an article on HealthcareFacilitiesToday.com. Both organizations are working to educate and inform their constituencies on the situation in order to mitigate the potential risk.

Last year, OSHA updated its Hazard Communication Standard (HCS or HazCom2012) to include the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). GHS stems from a United Nations effort to standardize hazardous materials labeling worldwide.

NFPA also provides guidance on how to label hazardous materials, through NFPA 704, Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response. It is a widely adopted labeling standard with the iconic "square on point" label calling out health, flammability and reactive stability hazards in blue, red and yellow squares with a number indicating the level of hazard.

NFPA 704 is commonly used by employers to comply with the HCS requirement for employee education, says the article. The problem comes in that GHS uses a numbering strategy for hazard levels that's inverted from the NFPA strategy: the most severe rating in the GHS is 1, while in NFPA's it's 4. In addition, the NFPA scale goes from 1 to 4, where the GHS scale goes from 0 to 4, meaning that the same chemical could land in slightly different hazard categories.

At this point, there are no plans to revise NFPA 704 to match the GHS category numbering. NFPA 704 ratings can still be included in safety data sheets and can still be a part of hazard communication. OSHA and NFPA are working on reference cards available on their websites which will detail HazCom2012 with GHS and NFPA 704 elements side-by-side, according to the article.