The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is revamping its Hazard Communication Standard (HCS), or HazCom, in the largest overhaul of the program since the “Right To Know” laws were introduced to the public in the early 1980s.  The new regulations will affect more than 40 million Americans, and include major modifications to the program’s hazard classification system, chemical labeling requirements and safety data sheets.

OSHA administrators say the globalization of business has prompted the organization to align its existing communication standard with the United Nation’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, otherwise known as GHS. The United Nations began encouraging countries to adopt the program in 2002, when it sought to build the infrastructure to control chemical exposures with a more comprehensive system. Since its inception, more than 70 countries have converted to some version of GHS. The United States adopted the GHS format in March 2012.

“The global chemical business is more than a $1.7 trillion per year enterprise,” says Allen Rathey, president of The Healthy Facilities Institute. “In the United States chemicals are more than a $450 billion business and exports are greater than $80 billion a year — and have a huge impact on human health. [GHS] affects anyone who makes, sells, or buys chemicals and it certainly affects the global cleaning industry, which is chemically-intensive.”

By transitioning to GHS, OSHA hopes to remove the inconsistencies that have complemented the rise of global commerce. The change is expected to reduce the confusion that surrounds chemical labels by establishing a universal patois of hazard warnings so that workers in the United States, including non-English speakers, as well as workers in foreign countries can benefit from the proper use and handling of chemicals.

“If you’ve ever purchased a product from China [and] you open the package and look for the instructions, you might be surprised to find they are written in Chinese,” says David Casavant, executive director at the Workplace Safety Awareness Council. “A product purchased outside of the United States might not provide the end users with all of the information required by OSHA.”

Without this information workers risk serious harm, Casavant says.

Current OSHA statistics show about 15 percent of workplace injuries and fatalities relate to chemical exposure. The revised standard is expected to prevent an estimated 585 injuries and illnesses, and more than 40 deaths, annually, according to OSHA.

“Exposure to hazardous chemicals is one of the most serious dangers facing American workers today,” says Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis in an OSHA press release. “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.”

OSHA requires employers — including building service contractors and in-house service professionals — to train their workers on the revised communication standard by Dec. 1, 2013, however, the program won’t be fully implemented until June 2016. Employers are advised not to wait until the last minute to bring their staff up to speed.

Despite the training deadline — and the liberal transition period — distributors must adhere to all modified provisions of the final rule one year before the final implementation date — by June 1, 2015 — though they may continue to ship products labeled by manufacturers under the old system for six additional months, until Dec. 1, 2015.

next page of this article:
HazCom History: The “Right To Know” Act