GHS is a Reality… Are you Ready?

I was speaking recently at a VPPPA (OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association) conference on HazCom compliance. The issue of the Global Harmonized System, more commonly known as GHS, arose multiple times, which suggests to me that there are a lot of questions out there.

So what exactly is GHS? The idea was born at the Global Earth Day Summit in 1992.  In short, it’s a world-wide standardized approach to hazard communication, which is supported by the United Nations and regulatory agencies around the globe.  The stated aim of the GHS is to “enhance public health and environmental protection by ensuring safe transport, handling, use and disposal of hazardous materials.”

So what does it really mean?  I can boil it down to three main components:

1.  Standardized hazard definitions
2.  Standardized hazard warnings and symbols on container labels
3.  Standardized MSDS format and content

GHS was adopted by most of the European Union in October 2008 and around the same time; OSHA formally recommended that the United States adopt GHS.  While it will likely take some time for GHS to become a requirement in the U.S., I believe there is a very good chance that it will become law inside of five years, which is a good thing as I believe it will make U.S. workers safer overall.

There are two key benefits to the GHS.  First, it should help your employees more easily read and understand the hazards associated with warning labels, MSDSs (or SDSs as they are often called in Europe), signs, placards, etc.  For instance, GHS requires that all MSDSs be written in the same format.  Currently OSHA does not require chemical manufacturers to follow any particular format as long as key hazards are identified as outlined by the HazCom standard.  Second, by merging the many disparate and often complex hazard symbols and images into a single hazard warning system, overtime will eliminate confusion.

So, how will GHS affect you?  If you are a chemical manufacturer, you will most likely need to re-author your MSDSs into the GHS format and make sure that your labels meet the GHS requirements.  If you are not a chemical manufacturer, but use/ handle chemicals in your workplace, you will need to make sure that you keep your MSDSs up-to-date as they are sent to you by suppliers, and you will need to make sure that your products are labeled properly including secondary labels.  Finally, you will need to train your employees on the new hazard warning system. This includes training them in how to read the new labels, and MSDSs for the chemical hazards they are likely to see in their work areas.  For more information on the GHS, check out this article I wrote for Occupational Health and Safety Magazine.

– Glenn Trout, President, MSDSonline