You’re Not Too Late: What GHS Trainers Say You Need to Know Now about OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard

By Megan Headley

After years of warning, the deadline for compliance with the first step of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) effort to bring its Hazard Communication Standard closer to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) is only a few short weeks away.

And although this deadline—December 1, 2013—has been years in the making, training organizations see that not everyone is prepared.

“Most of the big corporations know what’s going on with regards to the new HazCom rule, but there are a lot of medium size and small companies asking ‘G-H-what?’” says Bill Mallett, who works in sales and marketing for GHS Safety, a part of INCOM Manufacturing Group in Wheatfield, N.Y. “I think there’s a general unawareness of the new HazCom rule published last year.”

Joyce Long, the St. Louis-based leader of Marsh Risk Consulting’s Global Workforce Strategies Practice, is seeing a similar unawareness.

“We find that smaller companies have the greatest need as they may not have a designated safety resource or be tracking regulatory developments as closely,” Long says. She adds, “Then again, a lot of organizations won’t worry about the deadline until it hits and there is a real threat of penalties.”

In short, OSHA’s new hazard communication standard issues a set format for the labels and material safety data sheets on chemicals, rather than allowing chemical manufacturers and importers to provide hazard information to employers and workers in any format they choose. According to OSHA, the biggest changes safety managers will see include:

  • “Hazard classification: Chemical manufacturers and importers are required to determine the hazards of the chemicals they produce or import. Hazard classification under the new, updated standard provides specific criteria to address health and physical hazards as well as classification of chemical mixtures.
  • Labels: Chemical manufacturers and importers must provide a label that includes a signal word, pictogram, hazard statement, and precautionary statement for each hazard class and category.
  • Safety Data Sheets: The new format requires 16 specific sections, ensuring consistency in presentation of important protection information.

Most importantly for safety managers, workers must be familiar with the new system as of December 1, 2013.

Questions Abound

Safety professionals just now adding GHS training to their regular list of duties seem to be asking the same questions.

“In our conversations with clients and during training sessions, several issues arise,” Long says. “First, the GHS labeling standards differ somewhat from other fire and chemical standards (NFPA, for example) in the United States. However, with training, this becomes easier to manage.”

Mallett notes that this labeling system also differs from the Hazardous Material Identification System (HMIS), which could pose some confusion. “I think there is a lot of confusion and a lot of questions about how the GHS, NFPA and HMIS interact with each other—or the fact that they really don’t interact with each other,” Mallett says.

Long says she also has heard frequent questions about which employees actually need to be trained on the new system. “The rule to go by there is any person whom in the course of employment could face exposure to hazardous chemicals. That means any employee subject to the standard in first place or even an office employee handling copier toner.

Finally, Long says, “There are new pictograms that address health hazards, including irritants, which could be a benefit not just to safety in the workplace, but at home. Knowing a substance is toxic at work should reduce the likelihood that an employee will bring it home. It may also help an employer decide whether a certain chemical should be used if it poses a health or irritant hazard. The irritant pictogram also lets you know if you might need to wear gloves or other protective clothing. Another pictogram worth mentioning, environmental (which is not mandatory), might cause someone to think before pouring a hazardous chemical down the drain. To dispel any confusion and reinforce the benefits of the pictograms we often run employees through quizzes for familiarization purposes.”

To prepare workers, OSHA has provided presentations and held train-the-trainer sessions to raise awareness and ensure organizations have the tools needed to comply, Long says. Numerous programs are available to provide training, although Mallett points out that the closer the deadline gets, the busier these programs expect to be. “We have seen a steady increase in training and compliance materials as we get to the December 1, 2013, training deadline,” he cautions.

Expect to See Penalties

In talking with OSHA representatives, Mallett believes that officials will be firmly enforcing the new requirement. “OSHA is partially self-funded or partially and they do that in part through, unfortunately, enforcement and fining. This creates an opportunity for a revenue stream for them,” he points out. “I anticipate that OSHA will be enforcing the new HazCom/GHS rule to an extent.”

Long suggests that OSHA will work with companies to ensure they’re able to meet the new requirements. “Given how helpful OSHA has been in the run up to the December 1 deadline and how the other compliance deadlines have been spaced out, we expect that OSHA will help companies through the transition period so that GHS is implemented correctly,” she says.

“However,” Long is quick to add, “hazard communication is one of the most frequent violations for which companies receive citations. If OSHA receives any complaints from employees, it will of course respond.”

She also suggests that during the course of standard inspections, OSHA officers will begin to ask about GHS. “We understand it is already happening. Companies that receive citations and fines likely will be those that deliberately ignored compliance deadlines, while others who have made efforts to comply will receive additional guidance,” Long says.

Surprisingly, Mallett sees a great deal of what he refers to as “Chicken Little” syndrome: companies that are ignoring the compliance deadline because the long lead time to this point has left them skeptical that the deadline—and its forthcoming consequences—is truly coming.

“We hear a lot of comments of ‘well we’re going to see if they are going to push the rule back’… which I find kind of surprising,” he says. “This GHS rule has been coming for almost ten years, and now that it’s finally here, I think there’s been a little bit of disbelief.”

The Next Step

The next deadline safety managers should know is June 1, 2015. By that point, chemical manufacturers and importers must comply with all provisions of the new system. However, safety managers may still see labels under the older system until December 1, 2015, at which point all distributors must cease shipping product with the old labels.

“Between now and the enforcement dates for the new HazCom rule, average, everyday-use companies will start to see the new formatted safety data sheets and labeling being used more and more,” Mallett says.

Long says that there are a number of steps that safety managers can take now to prepare for full compliance with GHS.

“Safety managers can assess any gaps in their hazard communications programs in order to uncover any deficiencies. Safety managers may want to focus on updating their hazardous chemicals inventories so they can ensure they have new Safety Data Sheets for each hazardous substance used. They may also want to begin revising their in-plant labeling systems and promoting their use inside their facility,” she says.

After all, meeting the compliance deadline is simply the first step toward understanding how to improve the safety of your workplace.

About the Author

Megan Headley is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached at