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Communicating Hazards

Regulation: OSHA adopts global system for chemical safety information

by Cheryl Hogue
March 26, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 13

New warning labels and standardized descriptions of chemicals’ hazards are coming to U.S. labs, factory floors, and other workplaces. Through a regulation released last week, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration is bringing U.S. requirements for communicating chemical safety information to workers in line with an international system.

Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis says OSHA’s revised hazard communication standard “will improve the quality, consistency, and clarity of hazard information that workers receive, making it safer for workers to do their jobs and easier for employers to stay competitive in the global marketplace.” She adds, “Exposure to hazardous chemicals is one of the most serious dangers facing American workers today.”

The agency’s move will require chemical makers and importers to use warning symbols that were developed through the United Nations. Called pictograms, the symbols are designed to communicate chemical hazard information to workers regardless of whether they can read or the language they use.

Companies will also have to incorporate standardized language in the material safety data sheets they provide to customers about products’ hazards. Currently, each producer may choose the wording for its safety data sheets. In some cases, the description of a substance’s hazard varies substantially among safety data sheets from different suppliers, says Michael J. Wright, health, safety, and environment director for the United Steelworkers, which represents chemical and refinery workers.

The Steelworkers and the American Chemistry Council, a chemical manufacturers’ organization, back U.S. adoption of the international scheme, called the Globally Harmonized System of Classification & Labelling of Chemicals.

Michael P. Walls, ACC vice president of regulatory and technical affairs, says OSHA’s new standard “will help our industry improve the communication of important safety information, minimize transaction costs, and create efficiencies in labeling chemicals both domestically and abroad. It will also help promote better trade relations by minimizing differences between countries.” Plus, he says, it could improve U.S. exports.

Governments, businesses, and labor groups worked through the UN to develop the Globally Harmonized System with the aim of protecting human health and facilitating trade. Thus far, 67 countries have adopted at least part of it.



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