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Safety and Health: What is GHS and why should you care?

John Skowronek

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently revised the Hazard Communication Standard to make it compliant with the United Nation’s “Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals,” which is commonly referred to as GHS. The intent is to standardize chemical labeling systems used and provided by manufacturers on products containing chemicals as well as to standardize what used to be called Material Safety Data Sheets into a new document called simply a Safety Data Sheet or SDS.

The reason you should care is that most employers are unaware that the current law requires every employer to have a written Hazard Communication Plan under the OSHA standards (29 CFR 1910.1200) and to have provided training to all their employees on their company’s program. The existing requirements are that the program must be in writing, include a chemical list of all the chemicals that any of your employees may be exposed to as part of their job and, have a corresponding MSDS for each of those chemicals that must be kept on the site where the chemicals are being used.

The adoption of the GHS standard will require every employer to re-write their Hazard Communication Program to comply with the new regulation. OSHA published its final rule aligning the Hazard Communication Standard with the GHS on March 26 of 2012. The new rule became effective May 25, 2012 but allows for a “phase-in” period for employers to come into full compliance. The first deadline for compliance is December 1, 2013, at which time all employers must have trained all of their employees on the new labeling requirements and the SDS format.

The new standard provides that employers “shall” provide their employees with “effective information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area” at the time of the employees initial assignment and whenever a new chemical is introduced into the work environment. The training must specifically cover the new product labeling requirements as well as how to understand the new SDS format and the details of the employer’s written program.

The training for each employee must at least include the following:

* Methods and observations that may be used to detect the presence or release of a hazardous chemical in the work area (such as monitoring conducted by the employer, continuous monitoring devices, visual appearance or odor of hazardous chemicals when being released, etc.);

* The physical, health, simple asphyxiation, combustible dust, and pyrophoric gas hazards, as well as hazards not otherwise classified, of the chemicals in the work area;

* The measures employees can take to protect themselves from these hazards, including specific procedures the employer has implemented to protect employees from exposure to hazardous chemicals, such as appropriate work practices, emergency procedures, and personal protective equipment to be used; and,

* The details of the hazard communication program developed by the employer, including an explanation of the labels received on shipped containers and the workplace labeling system used by their employer; the safety data sheet, including the order of information and how employees can obtain and use the appropriate hazard information.

In addition to the employer requirements above, the other phase-in dates require that by June 1, 2015, all manufacturers must be in compliance with the new rules, and as of December 1, 2015 manufacturers will no longer be able to ship product that do not comply with the new labeling requirements.

Finally, by June 1, 2016, all employers are required to have their written hazard communication programs updated and in full compliance with the standard and have provided any updated training for new chemical hazards as they may have occurred.

So what does this mean for your small business? Even if you have a written Hazard Communication Program and have a training program in place, understand that the new requirements, will, for the first time, require training not only to understand the general physical and health hazards of the hazardous chemicals used in the workplace but also specific training about the simple asphyxiation, combustible dust, and pyrophoric gas hazards of those chemicals as well as hazards not otherwise classified. These hazard categories were not even covered by the old standard and many of these newly identified hazards (like combustible dust) obviously don’t come with labels or SDS, so the training will have to be customized for your particular exposure hazards.

OSHA has consistently cited more employers every year for violations of the Hazard Communication standard than any other standard. This is likely to intensify in 2014 where they will be specifically looking for proof of compliance with the new regulations. This is why it is important the employers not only understand the nature of these changes and the new training requirements, but that they begin planning now to get that training done so they will be in compliance by December 1, 2013.

John Skowronek is an OSHA authorized trainer and safety consultant with Square One Solutions in Reno. Contact him at http://www.worksq1.com or follow him on twitter @KnotheadNed.