HCS: The Right to Know
More than 30 million workers are potentially exposed to one or more chemical hazards. There are an estimated 650,000 existing hazardous chemical products, and hundreds of new ones are being introduced annually. This poses a serious problem for exposed workers and their employers. Because of the potential risks to their health and well-being, employees have both a need and a right to know the hazards and the identities of the chemicals they are exposed to at work. They also need to know what protective measures are available to them, to prevent adverse effects from occurring.
This is the basis for OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard.
The HCS covers both physical hazards (such as flammability or the potential for explosions), and health hazards (including both acute and chronic effects). The regulation requires producers of potentially hazardous chemicals to provide detailed information about the hazards they present, and the necessary precautions needed to protect workers from those hazards.
By making information available to employers and employees about these hazards, and recommended precautions for safe use, proper implementation of the HCS will result in a reduction of illnesses and injuries caused by chemicals. Employers will have the information they need to design an appropriate protective program. Employees will be better able to participate in these programs effectively when they understand the hazards involved, and to take steps to protect themselves. Together, these employer and employee actions will prevent the occurrence of adverse effects caused by the use of chemicals in the workplace.
The HCS was revised in March of 2012 to incorporate and bring it in line with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). The new rule was published in the Federal Register in March 2012 (77 FR 17574), and became effective 60 days later.
Two significant changes contained in the revised standard require the use of new labeling elements and a standardized format for Safety Data Sheets (SDS’s), formerly known as, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS’s). The new label elements and SDS requirements will improve worker understanding of the hazards associated with the chemicals in their workplace.
To help companies comply with the revised standard, OSHA is phasing in the specific requirements over several years (December 1, 2013 to June 1, 2016).
The HCS established uniform requirements to make sure that the hazards of all chemicals imported into, produced, or used in U.S. workplaces are evaluated and that this hazard information is transmitted to affected employers and exposed employees.
Chemical manufacturers and importers must convey the hazard information they learn from their evaluations to downstream employers by means of labels on containers and safety data sheets (SDS’s). In addition, all covered employers must have a hazard communication program to get this information to their employees through labels on containers, SDS’s, and training.
This program ensures that all employers receive the information they need to inform and train their employees properly and to design and put in place employee protection programs. It also provides necessary hazard information to employees so they can participate in, and support, the protective measures in place at their workplaces.
All employers in addition to those in manufacturing and importing are responsible for informing and training workers about the hazards in their workplaces, retaining warning labels, and making available SDS’s with hazardous chemicals.
Some employees deal with chemicals in sealed containers under normal conditions of use (such as in the retail trades, warehousing and truck and marine cargo handling). Employers of these employees must assure that labels affixed to incoming containers of hazardous chemicals are kept in place. They must maintain and provide access to SDS’s received, or obtain SDS’s if requested by an employee. And they must train workers on what to do in the event of a spill or leak. However, written hazard communication programs will not be required for this type of operation.
All workplaces where employees are exposed to hazardous chemicals must have a written plan which describes how the standard will be implemented in that facility. The only work operations which do not have to comply with the written plan requirements are laboratories and work operations where employees only handle chemicals in sealed containers.
The written program must reflect what employees are doing in a particular workplace. For example, the written plan must list the chemicals present at the site, indicate who is responsible for the various aspects of the program in that facility and where written materials will be made available to employees. The written program must also describe how the requirements for labels and other forms of warning, material safety data sheets, and employee information and training are going to be met in the facility.
The first compliance date of the revised HCS is December 1, 2013. By that time employers must have trained their workers on the new label elements and the SDS format. This training is needed early in the transition process since workers are already beginning to see the new labels and SDSs on the chemicals in their workplace. To ensure employees have the information they need to better protect themselves from chemical hazards in the workplace during the transition period, it is critical that employees understand the new label and SDS formats.
The list below contains the minimum required topics for the training that must be completed by December 1, 2013. Training on label elements must include information on:
- Type of information the employee would expect to see on the new labels, including the
- Product identifier: how the hazardous chemical is identified. This can be (but is not limited to) the chemical name, code number or batch number. The manufacturer, importer or distributor can decide the appropriate product identifier. The same product identifier must be both on the label and in Section 1 of the SDS (Identification).
- Signal word: used to indicate the relative level of severity of hazard and alert the reader to a potential hazard on the label. There are only two signal words, “Danger” and “Warning.” Within a specific hazard class, “Danger” is used for the more severe hazards and “Warning” is used for the less severe hazards. There will only be one signal word on the label no matter how many hazards a chemical may have. If one of the hazards warrants a “Danger” signal word and another warrants the signal word “Warning,” then only “Danger” should appear on the label.
- Pictogram: OSHA’s required pictograms must be in the shape of a square set at a point and include a black hazard symbol on a white background with a red frame sufficiently wide enough to be clearly visible. A square red frame set at a point without a hazard symbol is not a pictogram and is not permitted on the label. OSHA has designated eight pictograms under this standard for application to a hazard category.
- Hazard statement(s): describe the nature of the hazard(s) of a chemical, including, where appropriate, the degree of hazard. For example: Causes damage to kidneys through prolonged or repeated exposure when absorbed through the skin.” All of the applicable hazard statements must appear on the label. Hazard statements may be combined where appropriate to reduce redundancies and improve readability. The hazard statements are specific to the hazard classification categories, and chemical users should always see the same statement for the same hazards, no matter what the chemical is or who produces it.
- Precautionary statement(s): means a phrase that describes recommended measures that should be taken to minimize or prevent adverse effects resulting from exposure to a hazardous chemical or improper storage or handling.
- Name, address and phone number of the chemical manufacturer, distributor, or importer.
- How an employee might use the labels in the workplace. For example,
- Explain how information on the label can be used to ensure proper storage of hazardous chemicals.
- Explain how the information on the label might be used to quickly locate information on first aid when needed by employees or emergency personnel.
- General understanding of how the elements work together on a label. For example,
- Explain that where a chemical has multiple hazards, different pictograms are used to identify the various hazards. The employee should expect to see the appropriate pictogram for the corresponding hazard class.
- Explain that when there are similar precautionary statements, the one providing the most protective information will be included on the label.
- Training on the format of the SDS must include information on:
- Standardized 16-section format, including the type of information found in the various sections. For example, the employee should be instructed that with the new format, Section 8 (Exposure Controls/Personal Protection) will always contain information about exposure limits, engineering controls and ways to protect yourself, including personal protective equipment.
- How the information on the label is related to the SDS. For example, explain that the precautionary statements would be the same on the label and on the SDS
Remember, for all training, OSHA requires employers to present information in a manner and language that their employees can understand. If employers customarily need to communicate work instructions or other workplace information to employees in a language other than English, they will also need to provide safety and health training to employees in the same manner. Similarly, if the employee’s vocabulary is limited, the training must account for that limitation. By the same token, if employees are not literate, telling them to read training materials will not satisfy the employer’s training obligation.
OSHA’s Hazard Communication website has the following QuickCards and OSHA Briefs to assist employers with the required training.
- Label QuickCard
- Pictogram QuickCard
- Safety Data Sheet QuickCard
- Safety Data Sheet OSHA Brief
- Label/Pictogram OSHA Brief
Materials are available in both English and Spanish.
- Side-by-Side Comparison: HCS 1994 vs. HCS 2012 (osha.gov)
- Society for Chemical Hazard Communication (workers-compensation.blogspot.com)
- U.S. system for flagging hazardous chemicals is widely flawed (reuters.com)
- Are there hazardous chemicals at your job? (unitedallianceservices.typepad.com)
- Employee Training Deadline for OSHA HazComm Revisions (bobpopechst.typepad.com)
- Chemical Emergencies – neglected hazards and risks (recoverydiva.com)
- Right to know revisions on OSHA Hazard Communication (unitedallianceservices.typepad.com)