Hazard Communication Standard

The Hazard Communication Standard was initially established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1983. It has been updated and expanded since, most notably in 1987 and 1994, in revisions referred to as HazCom. A sweeping 2012 revision aligned OSHA’s regulations, which were only applicable in the United States, with international standards incorporated within the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). Classifying workplace chemicals and educating employees about safety procedures in handling workplace chemicals are critical components that need to be understood about the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS).

HCS Mandates Workplace Disclosure

When OSHA adopted its first HCS regulations outlining the classification and proper use of chemicals in the workplace, there were no requirements that employees or on-site supervisory management be informed about the possible health risks they were potentially being exposed to.

The original intent of the HCS1983 regulations mandating disclosure – referred to as the “Right To Know Law” -- was that workers had the right to be informed of the nature of these substances and be provided precautions, procedures, and training in how to mitigate exposure and, subsequently, potential health risks.

OSHA defines the HCS as a safeguard to “ensure that the hazards of all chemicals produced or imported are evaluated, and details regarding their hazards are transmitted to employers and employees."

Global Standards in Effect Since 2016

In 2012, OSHA initiated a four-year transition to aligning the HSC with international standards incorporated in the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) program. The GHS system officially went into effect in the U.S. June 1, 2016.

The newly adopted classifications, procedures, labeling and data sheets mandated by the revised HCS under the GHS system ensures the fundamental definitions of hazardous chemicals and proper handling procedures are universally standard. It was critical to codify these classifications and procedures on an international basis because of the nature of the global economy in the 21st century. A vast volume of chemicals, as well as chemical compounds and products containing chemicals, are primary products or integrated into goods routinely imported and exported across national borders in worldwide trade.

Until this global standardization was adopted through the U.N., chemicals were classified and regulated under a hodge-podge of definitions, risk ratings and handling procedures that often left workers and workplaces without comprehensive disclosure of substances and compounds they were being exposed to, especially in imported products, and without clear direction in how to handle them.

Despite the universal incorporation of the GHS, the regulatory objective of the HSC in the United States has not changed, and OSHA continues to mandate that employees be properly informed of the health risks they could be exposed in the workplace by handling hazardous chemicals that are not only produced domestically but imported into the nation.

GHS ‘Purple Book’ Goes Global

The GHS was created because, with the accelerating pace of transnational shipments and use of chemicals, a need for consistency in chemical classifications and labeling became necessary. The United Nations provided the international forum to “harmonize” these varied classifications and labeling practices to make them universally understood in workplaces from Argentina to Zanzibar, from Peking to Paris.

The effort began in 1992 and was negotiated to its adopted form in 2003 with the publication of the manual commonly referred to as the “Purple Book.” The manual has since been revised three times and is constantly being updated as new chemical compounds are developed and incorporated into emerging technologies and applications.

OSHA and other U.S. federal regulatory agencies were actively engaged in the GHS’s development and its universal evolution and continues to participate with U.N. agencies in maintaining and coordinating its implementation.

GHS Voluntary, HCS mandatory

While compliance with the HCS is mandated by law in the U.S., adhering to the GHS is voluntary without any agency ensuring international enforcement. Each nation imposes its own compliance and enforcement standards, if any. The GHS is merely a universal system of identifying and classifying chemicals that can be adopted and integrated into each nation’s laws and regulations regarding the manufacture, handling, transport and use of chemicals.

Other Agency Involvement

While U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA is the primary agency for implementing and enforcing the GHS-enhanced HCS, there is a matrix of other federal agencies involved. Among them: the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

New 2016 HCS Requirements
Among the 2016 changes incorporated in the HCS with the GHS alignment is a severity classification, which ascertains the risk for potential injury or harm that needs to be assessed before using a chemical in various ways. The severity classification was not a component of the HCS’s 1994 HazCom update.

The inclusion of GHS into the HCS has also fostered changes in how information regarding chemicals is documented on container labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS), which 16 sections. Any shipments of chemicals now received by an employer or a workplace must feature this 16-section SDS.

16 Sections in the SDS

These 16 sections are included in SDS that must be accessible to anyone in a workplace. OSHA provides a ‘Quick Card’ that succinctly describes them. Here they are:

  • Section 1: Identifies the chemical, recommended uses, restrictions on application, contact information, including emergency phone numbers, of manufacturer and/or distributor.
  • Section 2: Label elements that identify hazards.
  • Section 3: Documents the ingredients and alerts user to any proprietary exclusions to disclosure.
  • Section 4: Describes exposure symptoms and responses, including First Aid instructions.
  • Section 5: Notification regarding potential fire hazard inherent in the specific chemicals being shipped. Includes fire-fighting and extinguishing procedures, equipment necessary to do so.
  • Section 6: Inadvertent exposure concerns with proper handling recommendations and equipment requirements.
  • Section 7: Best practices related to storage and handling, including a listing of other chemicals and compounds that should not come in contact, even in a latent storage scenario, which the chemical.
  • Section 8: Cites OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) and the ACGIH Threshold Limit Values (TLVs), which includes suggested personal protective equipment and exposure controls/personal protection lists recommended by the manufacturer, importer, or employer.
  • Section 9: The chemicals inert and active properties and characteristics.
  • Section 10: Alerts regarding the chemical’s stability and potential for dangerous reactions with other chemicals and compounds.
  • Section 11: Documents exposure pathways, telltale symptoms of exposure, including those from long-term exposure with a numerical table measuring toxicity.
  • Section 12: Ecological hazards of chemical.
  • Section 13: Best disposal practices.
  • Section 14: Regulations regarding proper transport.
  • Section 15: Comprehensive outline of regulatory oversight by other federal and state agencies in addition to OSHA.
  • Section 16: Date chemical was manufactured and notification of any regulatory updates or appendixes that require compliance.

Training: HCS Classification Standards

OSHA produces a general overview of the six standards of chemicals that are classified under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. This guidance stipulates that regulatory compliance requirements and other administrative measures may be updated by the agency, the courts, and Congress. Here are the six HCS classifications:

  • Hazard Classification: This describes exempt materials that are regulated by other federal agencies or are within state regulatory purview. They include: tobacco products, wood products (except wood dust), alcoholic beverages, food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, many agricultural products including pesticide-treated seeds.
  • Written Communicating Standard: This component of the six HCS Classification Standards is called the Written Hazard Communication Program (29 CFR 1910.1200(e)). This program mandates that workplace managers document steps necessary for compliance with the HCS. This compliance record must be posted in a visible place or available to employees and OSHA inspectors.
  • HCS Labels and Warnings: OSHA’s Labels and other Forms of Warning (29 CFR 1910.1200(f)) includes the “signal word” hazard statements (see below) and illustrations that identify the chemicals and compounds that must be grouped together on container labels and not separated on the container or any other way it is packaged. It is important for employers and workplace supervisors to stay current on updated rules and regulations regarding labels and warnings. OSHA currently gives employers some discretion in selecting what types of labels and warnings they will use on containers as long as those identifiers include all the mandated information and that the labels and warnings are prominently posted in English, although other languages can also be used if appropriate in specific workplaces. These labels and warnings must include:              
  • Product Identifier: The SDS label must include the chemical’s unique name and number that identifies it.                                                                                        
  • Pictogram: Labeling and warnings must feature an illustration conveying potential danger and the chemical’s hazard status. These graphics must be explicit in alerting handlers about risk of exposure.                                                                                    
  • Signal Word: These range from ‘DANGER’ to ‘WARNING’ in alerting handlers to the potential risk of exposure and the severity of relative hazards.                                          
  • Hazard Statement: The nature and degree of potential hazards must be clearly identified.                                                                                                                                                                            
  • Precautionary Statement: Must clearly, concisely recommend measures to minimize risk or prevent injury from exposure, improper handling or inappropriate storage.                                                                                                                      
  • Supplier Information: Contact information of chain of possession traced back to the supplier. chemical manufacturer, importer or other responsible party.
  • Workplace Training: Employees must be supplied information and training on the potential hazards and risks associated with exposure to chemicals being handled in their workplace by the employer. Training is required to provide recommended ways to detect the inadvertent release and ambient presence of the chemical and what physical health hazards that could entail. Protective measures, labeling and elaborates are included in Employee Information and Training (29 CFR 1910.1200(h)).
  • Proprietary Disclosure Exemptions: Manufacturers are accorded an exemption in special cases if the specific composition of the substance can meet the legal definition of proprietary and they can qualify it is a “trade secret” as defined by OHSA’s ‘Trade Secrets’ (29 CFR 1910.1200(i)) rules. If a manufacturer meets these standards, the trade secret must be noted on the SDS. The exemption provides access to information to health care professionals in a medical emergency or upon request as a precaution with a written statement of need and confidentiality agreement.

Ensuring that You Are Compliant

If there is pertinent physical and chemical data missing from your

If you receive a GHS format SDS that appears to be missing information and training procedures to be compliant the new HCS standard, then workplace supervisors and employers should contact the source of origin to ascertain the whereabouts of these documents. If that is not feasible, they may need to hire a firm that can test the chemicals to fill out the missing information on the SDS related to the chemical’s properties.

One ways to ensure you are exercising due diligence in complying with the “Right To Know” imperative of the HCS to incorporate information about chemical hazards and handling procedures, or addressing how and where the SDS can be accessed, in your employee handbook.

Legal Assistance

Compliance with the HCS can be challenging under some circumstances and may require assistance for attorneys familiar with OSHA and the HSC. Websites, such as UpCounsel.com, can provide information and access to local law firms and individual attorneys, as well as specialists on a state and national scale.

Depending on where you live or do business, and what kind of OSHA- or HCS-related issue you are concerned with, these online directories can be gateways in presenting your questions to multiple attorneys which, in turn, could lead to further engagement either via an email reply, a phone call, or by making an appointment for an in-office consultation.

Upcounsel.com provides a comprehensive directory of attorneys who are practitioners in distinct fields of law, including such specialties as OSHA and the HCS. The directory features profiles on individual attorneys that outline his or her experience, education backgrounds as well as a general outline of fees. UpCounsel has verified that any attorney listed on its site has been endorsed their state Bar associations with a “Good Standing” rating.

If you need help determining how to proceed complying with the Hazard Communication Standard, you can post your legal needs on UpCounsel’s marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.