OSHA Cautions Against “Working Ahead” on GHS

Last week, OSHA joined with the SCHC Alliance to deliver a webinar on the new HazCom Enforcement Directive. This new directive, released in July, provides instructions to OSHA inspectors on how to enforce the Hazard Communication Standard as aligned with the UN’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). One of the more interesting moments in the webinar was when industry experts drew attention to the fact that businesses can open themselves up to OSHA citations if they adhere to one of the UN’s versions of GHS rather than adhering to OSHA’s revised HazCom Standard. For instance, OSHA’s HazCom Standard closely aligns with the UN’s third revision of GHS, yet has key differences that U.S. companies must account for.

GHS was developed by the United Nations as a way to bring agreement and harmony to the chemical standards of different countries. When OSHA officially adopted GHS in March of 2012, it based its adoption on the UN’s third revision of GHS (which was originally released in 2009). However, because GHS is a “living document,” the UN is constantly updating and releasing new versions of it — currently on a two-year cycle. (At the moment, the UN is working on the sixth revision of GHS.)

Believing that all GHS versions are basically the same, or expecting OSHA to catch up to the UN in the near future, some EHS professionals have wondered if it makes sense to “work ahead” and tailor their HazCom compliance to one of the later revisions of GHS. In the new webinar, experts made clear that this could result in citations for noncompliance because there are conflicting directives among the UN’s GHS variations and what is currently outlined in OSHA’s HazCom Standard.

To highlight a typical conflict, the webinar gave the example of a hypothetical company that “works ahead” to align with Revision 4 of GHS (instead of the current Revision 3). One of the differences between Revisions 3 and Revision 4 concerns the categorization of flammable aerosols. Revision 4 of GHS introduces a new category for aerosols — Category 3 (nonflammable). In this new category, aerosols do not require a pictogram and are exempt from classification as a gas under a pressure.

However, under GHS Revision 3 (and under HazCom 2012), this same aerosol would meet the criteria for a gas under pressure, and would require all associated label elements — including the gas under pressure pictogram — to be OSHA HazCom 2012-compliant. Thus, working ahead to align with the next GHS revision might actually bring a company out of compliance with the HazCom Standard.

The upshot?  OSHA is cautioning: stay with us, but don’t work ahead!

In the big picture, this clarification should serve as another reminder that GHS is not a “magic bullet,” bor is it a “do it and then forget about it” solution. Rather, GHS is a collection of best practices that is continuing to evolve at the UN level. The changes made at the UN level do not automatically filter down to the countries and agencies that have adopted GHS. Case in point, even though the UN has updated its version of GHS, OSHA has made no adjustments to account for the UN’s subsequent revisions. In short, in the U.S., companies must comply with HazCom, not the UN’s GHS.

Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to stay abreast of the changes the UN makes to GHS, because the chances are good that sometime down the road, those changes will be worked into the HazCom Standard. They will just have to happen in OSHA’s timeframe, not the UN’s.

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