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OSHA Hazard Communication Standard Update: Changes to classifying and communicating about chemical hazard information

Getty images / extracoin / Feodora Chiosea / Mia Flowers
Getty images / extracoin / Feodora Chiosea / Mia Flowers
Published On
Nov 15, 2021

In February, OSHA issued its long-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to modify the agency’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). When a final rule is released, it will mark the seventh iteration of the regulation. It is intended to bring hazard communication (HazCom) requirements in line with the United Nations (UN) Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, revision 7.

The GHS provides a uniform set of chemical labels and standard practices for creating safety data sheets (SDS) in international trade. OSHA and other federal agencies participate in GHS development. While the GHS is frequently changed and is considered to be a living document, the current version of HCS has only been updated to coincide with the GHS revision 3. Therefore, the UN’s modifications in each updated version are not addressed in the OSHA standard.

The goal of HCS is to ensure that hazards in all chemicals are classified, and that information concerning these hazards is transmitted to employers and employees through container labeling, SDSs and employee training.

In a news release announcing the proposed changes to HCS, OSHA indicated, “The HCS update will increase worker protections and reduce the incidence of chemical-related occupational illnesses and injuries by further improving the information on the labels and Safety Data Sheets for hazardous chemicals…OSHA has preliminarily determined that the proposed modifications would enhance the effectiveness of the standard by improving dissemination of hazard information, so employees are more appropriately apprised of exposure to chemical hazards in the workplace.”

In the proposed rule, OSHA seeks to add new classifications for aerosols, desensitized explosives and flammable gases. The agency would like to expand the hazard class for flammable aerosols to include nonflammable aerosols. Flammable aerosols would remain in its existing Category 1 or Category 2 of the HCS, and nonflammable aerosols would now be classified as Category 3.

Another proposed update would add a new physical hazard class for desensitized explosives. These are chemicals that are handled or treated with a stabilizer to lower or mitigate the explosive properties of that chemical. These substances can become hazardous if the stabilizer is removed while working with or storing the chemical. They are classified as explosives in the current version of HCS and come with warning labels to keep the chemical stabilized. Although OSHA is proposing desensitized explosives as a new hazard class, it should already be covered in HazCom training.

OSHA also proposes to subdivide Category 1 for flammable gases into two subcategories, 1A and 1B. The new rule would require pyrophoric gases and chemically unstable gases to fall under Category 1A. This change would offer more specific and detailed information pertaining to flammable gas hazards for workers. In the current version of HCS, nearly all flammable gases are classified as Category 1. However, there are little to no distinctions between flammable properties and gases. This modification gives employers an opportunity to determine if a less-hazardous substitute chemical is available.

Other proposed changes to HCS include updated labeling requirements for “small” and “very small” containers; updated select hazard and precautionary statements for clearer, more precise hazard information; updated labeling requirements for packaged containers released for shipment; labels for bulk shipments of hazardous chemicals; and updated trade secrets information on SDSs.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would limit labeling requirements for chemical manufacturers, importers and distributors if they can demonstrate that it is not possible for pull-out labels, fold-back labels or tags to provide complete information. If the volume capacity of a chemical is 100 ml or less, companies would be able to use abbreviated labels. This means that they would only be required to place the product identifier, pictogram, signal word, chemical manufacturer’s name and phone number on the chemical, as long as there is an indicator that the full label information is available on the immediate outer package. In a 2013 interpretation letter, OSHA deemed that a volume capacity of 100 ml or less was the definition of a “small container.”

Additionally, the new rule would allow manufacturers, importers and distributors to use only the product identifier on containers with a volume capacity of 3 ml or less, which are considered to be “very small containers.” The proposed rule would also require manufacturers to include a statement on their outer packaging that small containers inside must be stored in the immediate outer package bearing the complete label when not in use.

In the new HCS, several hazard and precautionary statements are being changed to mirror GHS revision 7. OSHA wants to add a new paragraph, C.2.4.7 of the current standard, “Precautionary statements may contain minor textual variations from the text prescribed elsewhere in Appendix C (e.g., spelling variations, synonyms or other equivalent terms), as long as those variations assist in the communication of safety information without diluting or compromising the safety advice.”

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is also looking to add paragraph (f)(1)(vii). The updated language would implement a requirement that the shipped container label includes the date a chemical is released for shipment. OSHA has indicated, in their interpretation, that providing the date a chemical is released for shipment on the label would allow manufacturers and distributors to identify the proper requirements to adhere to when new hazard information becomes available.

Additionally, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is proposing a new paragraph to address the transport of bulk shipments of hazardous chemicals. The new language would dictate that labels for bulk shipments of hazardous chemicals are affixed to the immediate container, or are transmitted with shipping papers, bills of lading or other electronic methods. This will ensure that the appropriate information is readily available in print to whoever receives the shipment.

The new rule would allow manufacturers, importers and employers to withhold concentration levels on SDSs to protect trade secrets. It also would require the chemical manufacturer or importer to determine the hazard classes for each chemical.

OSHA initially planned to gather industry and stakeholder comments through mid-April 2021; however, the deadline was extended into May. OSHA also collected feedback on whether or not to include updates in GHS revision 8. Mainly, this involved modifications made to Appendix A, revising expanded use of nonanimal test methods for skin corrosion or irritation classification; Appendix B, further modifications to aerosol classification; and Appendix C, identifying when an individual should call poison control instead of a doctor. OSHA will consider any comments received pertaining to the most recent version of the GHS and decide whether to include them when they issue a final rule.

OSHA experts hope to implement the proposed changes over a two-year period. The agency also seeks industry and stakeholder feedback on whether to update HCS every two years (in line with GHS updates) or every four years (with every other GHS revision).

Since the last revision to HCS, OSHA has written a number of directives, letters of interpretation and memos for clarification purposes. Despite the fact that many employers try to stay ahead of the curve and match their HazCom programs with GHS revision 7, it may become problematic. According to the inspection procedures for HCS provided by OSHA in 2015, companies can be cited with violations if their use of a more recent version of GHS does not align with current OSHA requirements. Therefore, until OSHA does issue a final rule for HCS, it is best for employers to focus on compliance with the current standard.

Unfortunately, HCS is the most commonly cited standard for general industry and the second-most commonly cited standard in all other industries. Some frequent violations in the past have included failure to develop and implement a compliant HazCom program, failure to provide adequate employee training, failure to maintain copies of SDSs and failure to properly label chemicals.

Employers should assess their HazCom programs to ensure compliance to avoid citations. Assessments should ensure that chemical hazard classifications are done properly, an inventory-specific SDS library is available and up to date, employees have access to the inventory of SDSs, manufacturer-­shipped labels and employer workplace labels are compliant, employees have been properly trained, a site-specific written HazCom program is accessible to employees and the current chemical inventory list is accurate.

Whenever employers conduct HazCom training, it should meet the requirements of the current version of HCS at a bare minimum.

As a result, it should include information from the written program, labeling systems, SDSs and operations. Upon completing training, employees should be able to identify the requirements of HCS, the purpose of a written HazCom program and the procedures needed to acquire a copy of the written program.            

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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