The United States Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) has announced a comprehensive update to its 1983 Hazard Communication Standard that will affect employers and workers in more than five million workplaces where hazardous chemicals are produced or handled. The revised standard, published in the Federal Register on March 26, 2012, is an attempt to bring uniformity to hazard classification, labeling of chemicals, and safety information. This update will bring U.S. workplaces in line with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals being implemented by countries throughout the world. The major changes to the Hazard Communication Standard (“HCS”), as well as the steps that employers should begin to take to comply, are discussed below.

Major Changes to the HCS

OSHA promulgated its original HCS in 1983, requiring manufacturers and importers of hazardous chemicals to provide labeling information and safety data sheets for hazardous chemicals used in the workplace. Under the original standard, the manufacturer or importer chose the format in which this information would be provided. This arrangement led to significant variation in the ways the information regarding hazards was communicated to workers.

In contrast, the updated HCS requires strict uniformity in the ways that hazardous chemicals are classified and labeled. Under the revised standards, hazardous chemicals must each be assigned to a hazard class and a hazard category that describe the nature of the physical or health hazard (e.g., flammable solid, carcinogen, explosive, irritant, etc.). Labeling must also include the following standardized elements: (1) a signal word (either “Danger” or “Warning”), (2) a hazard statement describing the nature of the danger posed by the chemical, (3) one of eight different standardized symbols or “pictograms” (e.g., a skull and crossbones), and (4) a precautionary statement describing recommended measures to be taken to minimize or prevent adverse effects resulting from exposure to the hazardous chemical. In addition to labeling hazardous chemicals, the manufacturers and importers of such chemicals must provide downstream users with safety data sheets containing information about hazards and protective measures. The updated HCS modifies the formatting for these safety data sheets, identifying sixteen individual topics (e.g., first-aid measures, handling and storage) that must be addressed in a specified order.

In addition to establishing requirements directly affecting manufacturers and importers, the HCS creates labeling standards and training requirements for employers using hazardous chemicals in their operations. Employers may choose to label workplace containers either with the same updated labels appearing on shipped containers or with their own labels – as long as these alternative labels meet the requirements under the updated standard. Employers are required to train their employees on the new label elements (e.g., pictograms and signal words) as well as the revised safety data sheet format by December 2013. Although manufacturers and importers must conform all labeling to the new standard by December 2015, employers have been given an additional six months, until June 2016, to update any alternative workplace labeling to comply with the revised HCS.

Practical Implications

OSHA estimates that the updated HCS will affect more than 43 million employees in workplaces throughout the country. According to the agency, the revised HCS is aimed at “reducing confusion about chemical hazards in the workplace, facilitating safety training and improving understanding of hazards, especially for low literacy workers.” While full implementation is not scheduled until 2016, employers should begin preparations to train their workforce to recognize and understand the new labeling and safety data sheet elements by the December 2013 training deadline. Employers should also recognize that, because of the extended implementation period, workers will likely be confronted with labels and safety data sheets prepared under both the previous standard and the updated standard during the next three years. As such, employers should consider beginning training programs as soon as possible to ensure that both new and seasoned employees are equipped to recognize and use warnings and information as presented under both the system that has been in place and the new system.

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