Implications of OSHA’s Revised Hazard Communication Standard

John Durkee, Metal Finishing’s “Cleaning Times” columnist, provides an overview of OSHA’s recently revised HCS as it relates to those who use cleaning chemicals.

Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS)
Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS)

The MSDS is dead! Long live the GHS!

For years, many have called the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) the SDS (Safety Data Sheet). In fact, the sponsors of the GHS (Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals) have named their MSDS “SDS” as well.BackgroundChemicals pose a wide range of health hazards (such as irritation, sensitization, and carcinogenicity) and physical hazards (such as flammability, corrosion, and reactivity).

In 1983, the U.S.  Occupational Health and Safety Administration  (OSHA) promulgated a regulation called the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS1). It was designed to ensure that employers provide information about these hazards and associated protective measures to their workers.All Was Well Until...Within two decades, that action led to two perceived problems: 

  • For a variety of reasons, many felt that the MSDS was incomplete, disorganized, and no more than a marketing tool.2
  • Nearly every country had its own HCS. And surprise–they were all different!

Enter Tom FriedmanThomas Lauren Friedman is an American journalist, columnist, and author. His 2005 book The World Is Flat has sold more than 2 million copies. One point he makes in his book is that global commerce is impaired when the information describing it is not consistent.Enter the UNIn 1992, The United Nations designed what it called the  Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) to replace the various classification and labeling standards used in different countries, They tried to use consistent criteria for classification and labeling on a global level. They wrote that they expected it “should be available in the U.S., if feasible, by the year 2000....”Hazard ClassificationThe GHS classification system is a complex one based on data3 obtained from tests, literature, and practical experience. Its  main elements include: 

  • Physical Hazards, such as flammability and reactivity.
  • Health Hazards, such as acute toxicity, respiratory or skin sensitization, and carcinogenicity.
  • Environmental Hazards, such as acute or chronic aquatic toxicity.

All these hazards can each be described in different “units”–characteristics with different meaning in, for example, Uruguay, Spain, Angola, and the U.S. And they are, of course, so described.

On March 20, 2012, OSHA published4 its final rule for the U.S. conforming its Hazard Communication Standard to the UN’s GHS. This will have real effects on any who make, sell, or use chemicals, with the most significant effects falling on those who make them.The SpecificsThe revised Hazard Communication Standard will now provide specific criteria for health and physical hazards to help chemical manufacturers and importers classify chemical hazards.

Chemical manufacturers and importers will be required to provide new labels5 that include a harmonized signal word, a pictogram6, and a hazard statement based on the hazard classification.

Precautionary statements must also be provided. Safety Data Sheets (SDS) will have a specified 16-section format.The Specifics for UsersEmployers must train workers on the new label elements and SDS format by December 1, 2013. Chemical manufacturers, importers, distributors, and employers must comply with all modified provisions of the final rule by June 1, 2015.

Distributors, however, may ship products labeled by manufacturers under the old system until December 1, 2015.

By June 1, 2016, employers must update alternative workplace labeling and hazard communication programs as necessary, and provide additional worker training for new identified physical and health hazards.Exposure LimitsPerhaps the most significant effect in the workplace of the new HCS will be with exposure limits.

Going forward after December 1, 2015, all exposure limits posted on SDSs will be those independently and coincidently promulgated by the ACGIH.7 Heretofore, exposure limits on MSDS  were either the tiny amount developed by OSHA itself, or more likely those proposed by manufacturers.

There is a key difference between these posted exposure limits: 

  • Exposure limits posted by  manufacturers represent their recommendations. Someone harmed by  exposure at those posted limits may sue that manufacturer for liability damages about those recommendations.
  • Exposure limits posted by the ACGIH represent their non-consensus opinion as an independent agency.
  • Harmed persons would have to prove negligence or collusion–which would be very difficult to do.

One must note that none of these exposure limits has the force of law in any jurisdiction. They are recommendations, not requirements. Benefits of the GHS/HCSWorkers will receive more and more detailed information about the hazards manifested by the chemicals they use in the workplace. That benefit accrues from the manufacturers.

Operators will have more well-founded exposure limits with which to manage their decisions and activities.

Manufacturers will find it easier to globally sell chemical products without the necessity to comply with local unique hazard communication requirements.SummaryOSHA has now, with much political fanfare, assumed capability they have long wanted: (1) global harmonization of information, (2) more complete descriptions of hazards, and perhaps more importantly to them, (3) a huge expansion of the use of credible exposure limits on the SDSs without impact to their long-tightened budgets.BioJohn Durkee is the author of the book Management of Industrial Cleaning Technology and Processes, published by Elsevier (ISBN 0-0804-48887). In 2012, Elsevier will publish his landmark book The Science and Technology of Solvent Cleaning (ISBN 185617-4328). He is an independent consultant specializing in metal and critical cleaning. You can contact him at PO Box 847, Hunt, TX 78024 or 122 Ridge Road West, Hunt, TX 78024; 830-238-7610; Fax 612-677-3170; or

  1. A fact sheet about the HCS can be downloaded from
  2. Which of course it is. OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels wrote “...the standard gave chemical manufacturers too much flexibility on how to present the hazard information, resulting in data sheets that were difficult to read or understand and also inconsistent .....this changes all that ....this moves it from the right to know to the right to understand...”
  3. It remains to be seen if manufacturers will continue to be able to complete these standardized and fulsome SDS forms by extending their use of the term “NA” about the availability of measured data when it suits their business interests to do so.
  4. It can be downloaded from
  5. See
  6. See
  7. The American Congress of Governmental Hygienists is a non-profit professional association of industrialhygienists and practitioners of related professions.