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Chemicals / MSDS / Signage / Safety / Standards And Certifications
November 2013 Feature 7

GHS — The Right To Understand

The new global standard aims to eliminate inconsistencies and inaccuracies on product labels.

November 12, 2013
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In December 2013, a big change is coming to the way warning and hazard labels and related materials are displayed on scores of different products including professional cleaning products.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) has agreed to integrate its hazardous labeling communication system, known as HazCom, with the United Nation’s (UN) Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS).

The key reason for the integration is to have consistent formats for labels and safety data sheets (SDS) for all chemicals manufactured or used in the U.S. as well as many, if not most, countries around the world.

Going Global

In other words, the goal is that a worker using a cleaning chemical in India or China will have, know and comprehend the same set of warning and hazard labels as a cleaning worker in North America.

A new global standard will be adopted with the hope that inconsistencies and inaccuracies will be eliminated.

The old HazCom standards were introduced in 1983 and were lauded because they addressed workers’ “right to know” about the potential hazards of using certain chemicals in the workplace.

Among other things, they provided guidance and information about the various hazards, treatments if exposed and mitigation measures as well as a material safety data sheet (MSDS) providing information on these hazards and such things as the proper handling and storing of chemical products.

With the new integration of the HazCom and GHS standards, information is not only standardized but should be easier to find and provided in more understandable formats, for example using “common signal words”  typically understood around the globe such as “warning” and “danger,” pictograms and hazard and precautionary statements.

According to Dr. David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, the HazCom standard “gave workers a right to know … the updated standard gives them a ‘right to understand.’”

OSHA believes the updated, integrated standard will impact more than 5 million workplaces in the United States and affect more than 43 million workers.

It admits there may be costs involved to implement the new standard such as creating and modifying labels, classifying and reclassifying chemicals, training employees on the new warning symbols and introducing the revised SDS (which will replace the material safety data sheets — MSDSs — used for years), however the hope is that the safety benefits will far outweigh any additional costs.

Key Changes To Be Aware Of

The integration has many parts, and several of them will directly affect cleaning and cleaning workers.

Hazard Classification: The new standard has specific criteria for classifying health and safety hazards by class and category.

Hazard class indicates the nature of the hazard, for instance if a liquid is flammable, carcinogenic or explosive.

Hazard category focuses on the severity of the hazard within each class.

Additionally, chemicals must have a hazard classification based on the weight of scientific studies.

This means that if one study finds a product is carcinogenic but five others say it is not, all six conclusions must be included to provide more complete information.

New Label Requirements: The old HazCom standards gave manufacturers considerable leeway on how they convey information on labels.

The new label requirements are linked to the hazard class and categories just discussed and are to be provided in pictograms, red borders and commonly used words.

Additionally, precautionary statements are required on labels, providing information on measures to take if a hazardous exposure does occur.

The End Of The MSDS: A form of MSDS has been used by chemical manufacturers since the 1950s.

In 1983, they were required by OSHA in the manufacturing industry, and later requirements were expanded to cover more products in more industries.

With the new program, the MSDS will be replaced with the SDS, designed to provide more consistent information organized in the same manner for all products.

Information And Training: To facilitate recognition and understanding, employers are required to train workers on how to use the new labels and the new SDS format by December of this year.

This means building service contractors and facility managers working with in-house cleaning crews will have to begin introducing the new format soon (see the "Complaince Dates" sidebar).

Industry Thoughts On GHS

As with any change, there have been those who believe the integration of HazCom with GHS is too sweeping, may be unnecessary or will end up costing manufacturers, business owners and managers more time and expense than OSHA anticipates.

“However, ultimately standardizing hazard labels will be in the best interest of everyone,” says Jennifer Meek, marketing director for Charlotte Products/Enviro-Solutions, a chemical manufacturer based in Canada. “We are already marketing products throughout the U.S., in Asia and [in] other parts of world. Having one set of standards that [is] accepted globally will likely make compliance much easier for us and help promote safety.”

Stephen Ashkin, long known as the “father of green cleaning,” suggests the new standards are one more step toward not only more precise labeling practices but also greater ingredient disclosure in chemical products including cleaning chemicals.

“If we can get manufacturers to disclose all chemical ingredients used in a product along with standardized labels and terminology, it really is in the best interest of everyone — the manufacturer, the user of the product and the professional cleaning industry,” Ashkin explains.

As to the training of cleaning workers about the new standard, Leah Runge, marketing manager for AFFLINK’s eLev8 system believes a lot of this will become the responsibility of JanSan distributors.

“It will likely be viewed as an add-on service facility maintenance distributors provide their clients, and most likely they will be not only the ones to perform this training but the people who will be most effective at doing so,” Runge says.

Next Steps

The process of integrating HazCom with GHS has been under discussion for more than a decade.

Originally the goal was to make the transition by the year 2000.

However, that proved far too optimistic.

In addition to OSHA’s HazCom standards, the integration involves existing systems used in other countries such as Canada and the European Union, all of which had to be considered.

However, synchronization has occurred.

The program is about to be rolled out, and if industry leaders are correct, it will likely be in the best interest of everyone involved.


Dawn Shoemaker is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries. 

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