Remember the Hazard Communication Standard

The original Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) was passed in 1994 and remained unchanged for almost two decades. During that 20-year period, the Hazard Communication Standard was listed year-after-year as one of the Top 10 most frequently cited OSHA standards. Citations for not having a written hazard communication program, failure to have Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), not labeling containers and/or not providing employees with information and training were routinely cited by compliance officers. It actually reached a point where employers started to complain to OSHA officials and Congress that the numbers of hazard communication violations were ridiculous with limited value to improving jobsite safety. They were also very easy for a compliance officer to issue, because if an employer did not have the written program handy or was missing a couple of labels or MSDS, citations could be issued without much effort on the part of the compliance officer.

The HCS has been effective and does serve a very important purpose, which is to ensure that workers understand how to use and work with chemicals safely. It ensures that workers are provided with information and training in reference to the hazardous chemicals they could be using or exposed to. It also ensures that information is available in the workplace on labels and MSDS, which they can refer to in order to find chemical specific information about the physical and health hazards, precautions, work practices, emergency procedures and personal protective equipment to be used. All of this must be provided to the employee prior to initial work assignments and whenever a new chemical hazard is introduced into the workplace.

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The employer is required to inform employees of:

Requirements of the HCS

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  • Operations in their work area where hazardous chemicals are present
  • Locations and availability of the company’s written hazard communication program, list(s) of hazardous chemicals and where to find material safety data sheets
  • Physical and health hazards of the chemicals in the work area
  • Measures employees can take to protect themselves
  • Hazard communication program developed by the employer, including an explanation of the labeling system and the MSDS, and how employees can obtain and use the appropriate hazard information

This was a huge undertaking when the standard was finalized and all employers had to be in compliance. Many employers hired consultants and trainers, while others turned to their insurance loss control departments for assistance. OSHA’s compliance assistance services were also called into action and some just jumped in head first. Keep in mind that back then there was no Internet, no PowerPoint presentations — 35-mm slide presentations and some video were the norm.

New changes to the OSHA HCS have recently been enacted. Hopefully it will be easier to get into compliance this time, but these changes will affect each and every employer in the United States as they will have to modify their hazard communication programs to bring the country into alignment with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). Building on the existing HCS, the GHS is expected to prevent chemical injuries and illnesses, save lives and improve trade conditions for chemical manufacturers.

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The new hazard communication standard still requires chemical manufacturers and importers to evaluate the chemicals they produce or import. They must also continue to provide hazard information to employers and workers by putting labels on containers and preparing safety data sheets (SDS).  However, the old standard allowed chemical manufacturers and importers to convey hazard information on labels and MSDS in whatever format they choose. The changes to the standard provides a single set of harmonized criteria for classifying chemicals according to their health and physical hazards by specifying how labels and SDS are prepared. For example, the new SDS — which will replace MSDS — will have a standardized format so employers and employees will find it much easier to find information included in the document. The changes are also expected to provide workers quicker and more efficient access to information, thereby enhancing employee comprehension of the hazards. According to OSHA, they will be especially beneficial for low and limited-literacy workers and reduce confusion in the workplace, as well as facilitate safety training and result in safer handling and use of chemicals.

Major changes to the HCS include:

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  • Hazard Classification: Chemical manufacturers and importers are required to determine the hazards of the chemicals they produce or import. A hazard classification under the new, updated standard provides specific criteria to address health and physical hazards, as well as classification of chemical mixtures.
  • Labels: Chemical manufacturers and importers must provide a label that includes a signal word, pictogram, hazard statement and precautionary statement for each hazard class and category.
  • Safety Data Sheets: The new format requires 16 specific sections, in a specific order, ensuring consistency in presentation of important information.
  • Information and Training: To facilitate understanding of the new system, the standard requires that workers be trained on the new SDS format and label elements, including pictograms, signal works and numerical classification, in addition to the current training requirements.  Note: Training must be completed by Dec. 1, 2013.

There are several things employers will need to do to be in compliance with the revised standard. Training employees about the new classifications, labels, pictograms, SDS, etc., is the first thing to be done and the one that compliance officers will be checking beginning Dec. 1, 2013. The next thing is to start collecting the SDS from distributors as they become available and replace the current MSDS you have on file for all the chemicals your employees could be exposed to. 

You are permitted to use electronic media to collect and make available SDS as long as employees have access to the information on demand. By June 1, 2016, all containers of chemicals are required to be labeled in accordance with the revised standard, and all containers shipped after Dec. 1, 2015, will have the appropriate label.

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If you have not started to train your employees as required by the new standard, I suggest you get started as soon as possible. After Dec. 1, 2013, OSHA compliance safety and health officers will be checking this out during their inspections. Once again, this will be a very easy citation for compliance officers to issue and I think employers will see the HCS work its way to the top of the OSHA Top 10 most frequently cited violations again.

More importantly, your employees need to know and understand the changes so they understand the labels and SDS, thereby knowing how to find chemical specific hazard information. This knowledge and information is the key to their safety because it can be used by them to prevent injuries and illnesses related to chemical hazards.

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For training and information, check out OSHA’s Hazard Communication website at Here, you can find even more detailed information about the standard and information you can use to train your employees and get into compliance.

George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.