Something wicked this way comes. So warned the American writer Ray Bradbury in his famous novel of the same title, where the arrival of a traveling circus brings evil to the lives of ordinary folks in a small Midwestern town. Nothing of the sort impends for noncompliant companies, of course, but the coming deadlines for compliance with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) do promise dire consequences for organizations that fail to comply on time.
The GHS came about from the chaos of different countries having different ways of classifying and labeling chemical products, many of them highly dangerous to human health. Taking cognizance of that and given an international environment where there’s a dearth of working national programs to ensure the safe storage, conveyance, and use of chemicals, a U.N. team (composed of experts on the transport of dangerous goods, and on health and environmental hazard communications) developed a unifying classification scheme, the GHS.
The overarching aim of the GHS is to establish a uniform set of rules for defining and classifying chemical hazards, as well as a uniform format and content for labels and safety data sheets (SDS) for eventual universal adoption and use. In addition to the primary benefits to national health and to the safety of workers who must be able to recognize and understand the dangers of chemicals in the worksite, the U.S. Department of Labor anticipates this consistency to help American companies pass trade restrictions around the world.
The importance of the GHS was placed into greater focus in May last year when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) modernized its Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to be consistent with the GHS.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis pointed out that the upgrade benefits both employers and employees: it enables U.S. businesses to be competitive abroad and it makes it safer for workers to perform their jobs. The updated HCS is expected to improve hazards communication in availability, quality, and understandability. Solis explained that aligning the new HCS with the GHS improves hazard communication because the GHS encourages plain language and easily understood graphics in labels to inform the worker of a chemical product’s identity, properties, and harmful effects. Companies that store hazardous chemicals in their workplaces must not only provide their employees with these labels, but must also train them in the proper handling of the chemicals.
This year, it’s the turn of U.S. companies to go GHS. The deadline to beat is December 1, 2013, the first of a series of mandatory deadlines on the road to full GHS compliance. By this date, companies with workers that work with or are exposed to hazardous chemicals in the conduct of their duties must have already trained them on GHS-formatted chemical label elements and GHS-formatted SDS. The deadline applies to all employers, according to OSHA. After this deadline passes, the U.S. worksite-safety watchdog is expected to crack down on companies that have failed to carry out the required training.
The next deadline comes on June 1, 2015 when compliance with all modified provisions of the final rule on the adoption of the GHS is required. OSHA noted that this deadline does not apply to chemical manufacturers, importers, distributors, and employers.
The next hurdle to GHS compliance has been set for December 1, 2015. By this date chemical distributors can no longer ship containers that don’t have GHS-compliant labels. This means that the deadline will impact manufacturers, importers, and employers who label the chemical goods.
By June 1, 2016, all employers must update, if needed, all alternative workplace labeling and hazard communication. In addition, they are required to give their employees extra training for newly identified health hazards and outright physical dangers.
As with all deadlines, the ones for GHS compliance are best met with proactive action, a strategy that many companies have already adopted.