How Should Workers Be Warned About Chemical Hazards?

Filed in Education, Safety by on March 20, 2012 6 Comments

One of the main characteristics of our economy since the Second World War has been the growing number of new chemicals that underpin our modern economy.

From a chemical plant to a beauty parlor; from a refinery to a nail salon, today’s workers are potentially exposed to thousands of chemicals every day.

In 1983, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) — a giant step toward ensuring that workers were trained and educated about the chemicals they were exposed to.  Commonly referred to as “right to know,” the HCS requires employers to train workers about the chemicals they’re exposed to, label chemical containers and provide safety data sheets containing important chemical safety information.

The standard was flexible – allowing chemical manufacturers to develop their own data sheets and labels. Unfortunately, that flexibility created its own problems: workers sometimes remained in danger because labels and safety data sheets often have very different warnings for similar hazards. Trade was also affected because labels and safety data sheets for the same chemical may look very different in the U.S. than in a country where we want to export it. Safety data sheets were in English, even though many workers in this country understand other languages more fully.

Today, the Obama Administration is announcing a new rule that will align these labels and other required safety information for hazardous chemicals with a new global system developed by the United Nations, called the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). This important change will adapt the HCS into a more uniform way of transmitting information that all chemical manufacturers, importers and distributors, along with employers, must use to communicate the hazards of chemicals to workers. 

Figure 1. Revised Hazard Communication Label (HCS 2012)

Chemical labels under the revised standard feature pictograms that immediately alert workers to potential hazards.

 Figures 2.1, 2.2. Chemical labels produced under existing standard (HCS 1994)

Under the old system, in which manufacturers developed their own labeling, chemical labels sometimes varied widely in the information provided.

Figures 2.1 and 2.2 are labels for the same chemical.

As one worker said during the public hearings held on the GHS proposal, this standard will move us from the “right to know” to the “right to understand.”

Now, if you’re a worker in an industry where you are required to respond to a spill, or handle and mix an array of chemicals, all marked in different containers, combined in different mixtures, and subject to different environmental conditions, you won’t be confused by different types and lengths of confusing informational materials. Instead of words, the new labels use easily recognizable pictograms that anyone can use, no matter what language they speak or what country they work in.

This revised standard – when fully implemented by the year 2016 – will protect workers from the immediate effects of toxic exposures and will also reduce the cancers, kidney disease and other types of chronic illnesses that have for too long plagued workers who are exposed to chemicals every day. As we know, the right to know can lead to the ability to act. And if this standard enables workers and employers to act together to make our workplaces safer, then we’ve been successful.

But protecting workers is not all this new standard does. The revised HCS will also save American business millions of dollars and help them compete in the global marketplace. President Obama issued Executive Order #13563 to direct the federal government to take steps to ensure that regulations not only protect people, but also to ensure that they don’t burden employers or the economy. This new system does that by saving an estimated $475.2 million in productivity improvements for American businesses that regularly handle, store, and use hazardous chemicals and cost savings of $32.2 million for American businesses that periodically update safety data sheets and labels.  It’s another example of regulations that can protect people and help businesses at the same time.

I recorded a short video explaining how the GHS system works (see above).  You can also find out more about the GHS and the updated HCS at OSHA’s new hazard communication Web site at www.osha.gov/dsg/hazcom/index.html.

Saving workers lives and protecting their long-term well-being is the task that my agency does every day. When those activities also reduce costs and help American businesses, it’s a win for workers, a win for employers, and a win for American enterprise abroad.

David Michaels, PhD, MPH is the Assistant Secretary for OSHA at the U.S. Department of Labor.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Orazio Barresi says:

    It would be beneficial if OSHA could summarize the changes in the Standard rather than expect everyone to read the entire standard to locate any changes.

  2. Jordan Barab says:

    Orazio: Good point. You can find a summary of the standard, including the changes from the original HazCom at our website: http://www.osha.gov/dsg/hazcom/index.html

  3. Back to the Constitution says:

    Print on paper does absolutely nothing to prevent tragedies. They happen despite the best of intentions. However, what is truly tragic, are the perceptions: 1) that regulation is law–it is not, because it is not created by the legislative process; 2) that regulation actually does anything for the person or group of persons described as beneficiaries of regulation. In actual fact, ALL regulation does is create an excuse for an (unconstitutional) administrative agency to fine a business for something deemed a violation. That’s the big con, folks. If, for instance, a miner is injured, or a person suffers injury while working and a bully organization like OSHA or MSHA steps in, the only thing that the agency does is collect money from the employer. That’s it. The person and his/her family is still responsible for pursuing damages in court. In otherwords, agencies create rules simply to be able to get what essentially are damages to perpetuate themselves without having to prevail in a negligence action against the employer in court. That’s ridiculous.
    It really is time for people, and particularly for business owners, to band together and adopt the mantra, “I will not comply”. Administrators cannot wield lawmaking authority AT ALL, according to either the U.S. Consitution or the constitutions of the states. Legislative authority is vested only in legislatures. OSHA possesses no legitimate authority to compel anyone to do anything.
    The only reason that businesses have bowed to regulator-bullies during the past 100 years is the existence of a system built piece-by-piece (principally by allowing Supreme Court justices to amend the Constitution by substituting interpretations for the words in the Constitution), in which We the People no longer earn money of real, intrinsic value as payment for our exertions. Instead, we earn dollars, which now exist primarily in binary form. We’re even contemplating a transformation into a cashless society, which is the final step to complete the separation of individuals from control of their financial destinies, and subjecting our finances to supervisory oversight and social engineering. Therefore, although it is extremely uncomfortable to even contemplate, we all MUST transform our earnings into things of real value and possess them. We need to take steps to be able to disengage from state-administered utilities and to grow food for our families. We must exercise our Natural Right to keep and bear arms (the Bill of Rights is a list of promises that no authority of government–legislative (Congress), executive (President), or Judicial (the Courts)–may ever be used to infringe upon or interfere with ANY natural right). We must form agreements with friends and neighbors, expand those agreements to other neighborhoods, and to our coworkers and employers, etc. to resist and oppose regulator activity. Finally, we must reconnect with the thinking of the Founding Fathers. Freedom is worth the loss of all worldly possessions.
    No agency rule ever is submitted to or passed by Congress or a state legislature and therefore possesses NO authority. Only an act passed by a legislature and enacted by the signature of the President or a governor is law. I WILL NOT COMPLY.

  4. I noticed that OSHA based their revised Haz-Com standard on version 2 of the GHS standard. This GHS standard is updated every two years, which means parts of the OSHA reg could be out of date quickly (in fact, version 3 of the GHS has just come out). Will OSHA be making any kinds of automatic updates to their HazCom standard? Or will they just wait and make an update if / when needed through the regular steps?

  5. Explanation says:

    OSHA Training: where is your principle place of business located, i.e. which state, and what is the full name of the business as recorded by the secretary of state? Are you unionized?

    The following is an explanation for anyone who read the April 19 post by OSHA Training. Firstly, only legislatures may make law. The purpose of the Constitution is to prevent government officials from exceeding the very limited scope of authority granted to them by the People, and to that end all 3 of the essential authorities of government–legislative (lawmaking), executive (law enforcement), and judicial (resolutions of disputes of law)–are exclusive (cannot be combined with any other). The legislative authority is vested, at the Federal level, in Congress, so ONLY Congress may make federal law. That is important because progressive bully institutions like OSHA are administrative (executive) agencies. It is unconstitutional for any of them to make law, which is referred to as “regulation” when it emerges from an administrative agency.

    Regulation is not law because it is not generated by Congress (the same is true at the state level: state agency regulation is NOT law either because it is not created by the state legislatures). Allowing ourselves to be bullied by agenciy regulations and reacting to it as if it is legitimate law means that, contrary to the Consitution, lawmaking authority is no longer accountable to the People. Under the Consitution, because ALL legislative authority is vested in Congress, all lawmaking authority is accountable to us by means of elections. Obviously, none of us EVER have been allowed to cast ballots to select the chief administrator of an agency.

    The dissociation of lawmaking authority from accountability goes ever farther than simply allowing administrators to slop words on paper and call it regulation after a phony accountability process: 1) Notice given by an agency to the People, or in Marxist terminology “the public”– in the government newspaper called the “Federal Register” of a rule that the agency is proposing to implement; 2) graciously allowing the People to submit comments about the rule; and then adopting the rule. That is NOT accountability; it’s a sham.

    Administrative agencies also frequently use a process called incorporation by reference to refer to a publication and to integrate the content of that publication into regulation. For instance, OSHA incorporated publication ANSI B56.1, written by a private group that refers to itself as the “Industrial Truck Standards Development Foundation” in 29 CRF 1910.178(a)(2). The incorporation wording appears below:

    “All new powered industrial trucks acquired and used by an employer shall meet the design and construction requirements for powered industrial trucks established in the “American National Standard for Powered Industrial Trucks, Part II, ANSI B56.1-1969″, which is incorporated by reference as specified in § 1910.6, except for vehicles intended primarily for earth moving or over-the-road hauling.” (See 29 CFR 1910.178(a)(2)).

    So the membership of organizations that develop “standards” is extraordinarily important, because the participants essentially make law through an almost entirely off-radar fashion. In the case of the “Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals” (GHS), the group that generates this tripe is a United Nations working group (see http://www.unece.org/trans/danger/publi/ghs/ghs_welcome_e.html).

    The United Nations does NOT create law for the United States!! Our Congress and state legislatures do, but, and this is just 1 of innumerable examples, the incorporation by reference process allows a small group of principally non-US citizens to dictate allowable business practices to US businesses. In this case specifically, the GHS is created and periodically modified by the GHS sub-committee of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (?!). Why is there a UN commission for Europe? Why are members of the government of China participating in the GHS subcommittee (see http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/trans/doc/2011/dgac10c4/list_of_participants_dec_2011.doc), and in fact contribute the largest delegation by country to the GHS subcommittee?

    Obviously, many questions naturally arise after grasping the reality of this process. Among them is a rhetorical question to OSHA TRAINING, “Why would you want OSHA to adopt each of the GHS revisions, rather than using the “regular steps”, which simply means that only a specific version of a standard is incorporated and therefore no compulsion to comply with the latest version necessarily exists. OSHA TRAINING would stay perpetually busy if OSHA adopts each revision because revisions seem to emerge every couple of years.

  6. OSHA Safety Training says:

    Thank you for the article, it was very informative.
    Providing OSHA employee safety training on how to identify and avoid common workplace hazards to will go a long way in creating a safe workplace.

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