Get Ready for OSHA’s Revised Hazard Communication Standard Employee Training Deadline December 1, 2013

In March 2012, OSHA revised its Hazard Communications Standard (HCS) to align it with the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS).  The GHS is an international approach to hazard communication.  Developed over many years and by many countries, it sets uniform requirements for hazard communication to improve the quality and consistency of information.  Among other changes, the revised HCS requires a new labeling system and a standardized format for Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), formally known as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs).  The new standard will be phased in through 2016.  The first deadline of December 1, 2013 requires all employers to train employees on the new label and SDS formats.

Many employers have already started their transition to the revised HCS.  Those who have not should act soon to meet the December 1, 2013 training deadline.  Employers should expect OSHA inspections conducted after December 1st to not only include verification of the required label/SDS training, but inspection of the employer's overall compliance with the HCS.

Meeting the December 1st training deadline should not be difficult for most employers.  Unlike comprehensive HCS training that must be given to all new employees, the label/SDS training only requires an explanation of the new label elements and the new SDS format.  The revised standard is silent on the specific content of the training.  However, in a "Fact Sheet" on OSHA's website, OSHA lists what it considers to be the "minimum required topics."  The "Fact Sheet" is not a mandatory legal requirement, but to avoid disputes about the adequacy of their training, employers should consider OSHA's guidance.

As to the new label elements, OSHA expects the training to cover:

  • The "Product Identifier" or how the hazardous chemical is defined by chemical name, code or batch number.
  • The "Signal Word" used to indicate the relative severity of the chemical hazard.  There are only two signal words, "Danger" and "Warning."  "Danger" is used for more severe hazards.  "Warning" is used for less severe hazards.
  • The "Pictograms" designated by OSHA to identify the hazard classification, such as "Corrosion" or "Flame."  There are nine designated pictograms.
  • The "Hazard Statement," which describes the nature of the chemical hazard, such as "causes damage to kidneys through prolonged or repeated exposure when absorbed through the skin."
  • The "Precautionary Statement," which describes the recommended measures that should be taken to minimize or prevent adverse effects, such as "keep away from heat."
  • The name, address and phone number of the chemical manufacturer and distributor.
  • How employees can use the labels in the workplace, for example, to locate needed first aid information, and how the label elements work together by, for example, describing multiple pictograms used to identify multiple hazards.

As to the new SDS format, OSHA expects the training to cover:

  • A description of the standardized 16-section format including the types of information found in each.  For example, employees should be told that Section 8 of the new SDS (exposure controls/personal protection) will contain information about exposure limits, engineering controls and personal protective equipment.
  • How the information on the label is related to the SDS.  For example, employees should be told that the "Precautionary Statements" are the same.

Employers are reminded that the new label/SDS training must be given to existing employees by December 1, 2013, and all new employees after that date.  This can be done by incorporating the label/SDS training topics into the employer's existing HCS training program.

The Hazard Communications Standard requires that information and training on chemical hazards be "effective."  Under the HCS and other training standards, OSHA has begun interpreting this requirement more forcefully by requiring that all training be given in a manner and language that employees can understand.  This means that if an employer normally communicates with its employees in a language other than English, then HCS training must be translated as well.  It also means that HCS training must take into account the employee's literacy or limited vocabulary skills. For additional information read OSHA Update: OSHA to Verify that Employees Understand Safety Training.   

Although the revised HSC standard does not require the new label/SDS training to be documented, employers are strongly advised to do so.  The documentation should include the date and title of the training, all instructors and participants, and should reference or attach any training materials, including quiz results, used.  In the event OSHA later investigates an employer's training, this documentation will be critical.

The December 1, 2013 training deadline is just one of several under the revised HCS over the next three years.  The next deadlines are:

  • June 1, 2015:  Chemical manufacturers, importers, distributors and employers must comply with all other requirements of the revised HCS.
  • December 1, 2015:  Distributors may not ship containers unless they contain approved labels.
  • June 1, 2016:  Employers must update workplace labeling and their hazard communication programs as necessary, including additional employee training for newly-identified chemical hazards.

Some employers have questioned the need to train employees on the new label and SDS formats by December 1, 2013 when use of the new labels and SDS formats will not be required until June 15, 2015.  OSHA answers by saying that the new labels and SDS formats are already appearing in the workplace, and that employees need time to transition to the new system.

With the prospect of more frequent hazard communication inspections starting December 1st, employers are also advised to ask:  Is my current hazard communication program in compliance?  Compliance requires:

  • A written hazard communication program.
  • An up-to-date chemical inventory listing all hazardous chemicals in the workplace.
  • Use of appropriate chemical labels throughout the workplace.
  • The maintenance of Material Safety Data Sheets (now SDS) for every chemical on the inventory list.
  • Adequate training of employees as required by the HCS.

In addition to completing the new label/SDS training, employers should audit and correct as necessary, their current Hazard Communication program.

There is a wealth of information and resources on the revised HCS and the December 1, 2013 training requirements.  OSHA provides a number of good resources on its website including sample labels and SDSs in English and Spanish that can be used for training purposes.  Numerous safety and health and trade groups continue to provide webinars, seminars and information.  A qualified safety professional can also assist employers to comply.