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Can OSHA, NFPA, HMIS, the HazCom Standard and GHS All Play Nicely Together?

Apr 11, 2011

OSHA is planning on publishing a final rule in August that will align the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). It’s not clear what affect (if any) that alignment will have on the NFPA and HMIS chemical hazard rating and labeling systems.

One issue of concern is that under GHS, numbers are used to rank hazards based upon their seriousness. Those rankings occur under what are called Hazard Categories, with lower numbers indicating greater hazards. The NFPA and HMIS on the other hand also use numbers to indicate hazard severity – only in their systems, the higher the number the more serious the hazard.

Complicating the issue is that GHS is a fairly young initiative developed by the UN and multinational committees and is being adopted worldwide, while the NFPA and HMIS date back to the 1950’s and 1970’s respectively and are well known systems even if they have not been adopted on the scale GHS is reaching.

There is concern among some that workers intimate with NFPA and HMIS systems could be confused by the two different numbering strategies, leading to unsafe work conditions. At the 2011 Ohio Safety Congress (OSC), during a presentation on GHS delivered by MSDSonline, there were several questions from the audience about how HCS alignment with GHS would affect NFPA and HMIS systems.

To help answer the question (as best it can be answered at this point) here is the information MSDSonline has compiled on the issue. It does not provide a satisfactory definitive answer for what’s to come, but it does help frame the conversation so safety professionals will know what to look for when HCS alignment with GHS becomes a reality.

NFPA's Take

First, as a follow up to OSC, MSDSonline connected with NFPA via Facebook at and asked for NFPA's take on GHS and whether there would be adjustments to its labeling system in response to GHS. NFPA responded:

"This would have perceived impacts on NFPA - the two most likely affected documents are NFPA 30 and NFPA 704. NFPA commented to OSHA during the public comment period that closed at the end of December 2009 on these issues and attended a public hearing held in March 2010 and provided similar comments on these issues. The NFPA comments in both cases should be available for public review as part of the docket that is maintained by OSHA as part of their rulemaking process. Until the rulemaking becomes final, NFPA committees are not fully able to assess the total impact on these documents, and so the committees continue to monitor the status of any action by OSHA to issue a final rule."

Next, MSDSonline looked at NFPA’s public comments on GHS in the Federal Register for December of 2009 and found this:

"NFPA believes that the numbered hazard categories resulting from implementation of GHS will cause confusion among traditional users of the HMIS or NFPA hazard rating and labeling systems. The NFPA 704 hazard rating system has been in effect since the 1950’s and has become a key element of MSDS information over the past 20 years.

Adoption of the NFPA 704 rating and labeling system through building or fire codes throughout the United States means that the recognized symbol and forms are prominently displayed and their posting is an important safety training topic for employers and employees. Additionally, the system is intended to advise the emergency responders in a readily recognizable manner of the immediate hazards associated with a facility.

The NFPA Committee on Classification and Properties of Hazardous Chemical Data meets in 2010 to prepare revisions to the current edition of the NFPA 704 standard. The Committee will consider the implications of the GHS approach through OSHA’s rulemaking as part of its deliberations. However, changes in the current 0-4 rating (with 0 being least hazardous) in order to match the GHS format will lead to confusion and significant change within those facilities currently complying with the NFPA standard.

Any suggestions that OSHA may have concerning the facilitation of this transition are welcome. NFPA appreciates the opportunity to share our views concerning OSHA’s role in protecting America’s workforce through a globally harmonized classification and labeling system. We reiterate our offer to assist OSHA in outreach efforts regarding changes in the hazard labeling and classification system, particularly those aspects related to the change in classifying flammable and combustible liquids."

Then we looked at OSHA’s 2009 Proposed Rules and its comments regarding public comments on the numbering issue, which said:

"Several comments raised an issue regarding potential confusion resulting from the numbering of hazard categories in the GHS (see, e.g., Document ID s 0046, 0054, 0064, 0035, 0123, and 0146). As described in the GHS text, some of the hazard classes that are divided into categories use numbers to designate those categories.

Chemicals posing the most serious hazards are assigned to Category 1, and higher category numbers denote less serious hazards. Labels prepared under the Hazardous Materials Information System (HMIS) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) systems, on the other hand, use higher numbers to indicate more severe hazards. It was argued that the different approaches would result in confusion and lead to hazardous conditions in the workplace.

OSHA recognizes that the approach to numbering hazard categories in the GHS differs from that used in the HMIS and NFPA systems. However, the Agency does not believe that this will result in confusion. GHS category\numbers determine the label elements that would be required for a chemical, but the category numbers themselves would not appear on labels. Where GHS category numbers would appear on the SDS (Section 2--Hazards identification), they would be accompanied by the label elements for the chemical, which would clearly indicate the degree of hazard. OSHA, therefore, does not anticipate that this information will cause employees to become confused. Moreover, the approach taken in the GHS (i.e., assigning higher category numbers to denote less serious hazards) is consistent with the approach used in the DOT transport regulations for many years."

From the preceding exchanges we can see three things:

1)      Both OSHA and NFPA are aware of the potential problems stemming from OSHA’s alignment with GHS as relates to the use of numbers to indicate hazard severity.

2)      At the time of these writings, OSHA and NFPA have different opinions about how much confusion is likely to result from the GHS alignment.

3)      We are unlikely to hear from NFPA on this issue until the final rule on GHS alignment is published.

ACA's Take

Next we contacted the American Coatings Association (ACA), formerly known as the National Paint and Coatings Association, which has jurisdiction over the Hazardous Materials Information System (HMIS).  They too have a public comment on GHS in the Federal Register – a substantial one at that. However it does not directly address the question of numbering.

In a subsequent phone call with ACA, I was told that they are paying very close attention to GHS and expect to make all necessary changes to HMIS to make it align with the HCS alignment with GHS. However, like the NFPA, they want to see the final rule first.

Interestingly, in its advocacy of GHS, ACA actually called for a more comprehensive adoption of GHS then is likely to take place. (Under GHS, countries may adopt only those components that interest them, and ACA was encouraging the United States to do a whole sale adoption.) The following comes from their public comment submitted to OSHA:

"If the GHS is not adopted in its entirety (all sections-all criteria) the result will be a “New Baseline of Disharmony”. There will be no benefits and no savings. In fact, it will be exorbitantly expensive and fruitless as it will result in re-writing SDSs and labels in a multitude of different forms according to each nation’s (and Federal agencies within the U.S.) adoption of the portions of the GHS they choose.

Our position is that it will be impossible to achieve global harmonization unless all nations adopt the GHS in its entirety. The disharmony resulting from a “pick-and-choose” approach to the GHS is evidenced by the current situation concerning Japan and the other Asian Rim countries.

We also believe that it will be impossible to realize GHS harmonization in the U.S. without the total cooperation and coordination of OSHA, DOT, EPA, CPSC, AND the NFPA to ensure that ALL portions of the GHS are adopted in their entirety."

ACA’s perspective on the issue is worth noting as it was intimately involved in the creation of GHS. As a side note, talking with the folks at ACA was very enjoyable – they are not only very knowledgeable, the people I talked to have great senses of humor.

The preceding, while not satisfying to those employers looking to get a jump on labeling issues, indicates that GHS issues are on the radars of both NFPA and ACA, and that once the new HCS rule is published, both are likely to act quickly.

MSDSonline will continue to track developments and pass along information as it become available.

- The MSDSonline Team -

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