In most Australian states, businesses involved with hazardous chemicals must comply with the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) from 31 December 2016. 'Businesses' include manufacturers, suppliers, importers and any person conducting a business or undertaking that involves hazardous chemicals. 31 December 2016 may seem a long way off, but businesses should begin the transition as soon as possible to ensure compliance and avoid penalties.
The GHS was developed by the United Nations to harmonise rules about classification and hazard communication in relation to hazardous chemicals at a national, regional and worldwide level. It applies substantially the same hazard communication throughout the world, similar to the harmonised system for road signs. This makes sense from a risk management perspective in avoiding differences in hazard communication country by country, and from a commercial perspective, in reducing the requirement for different wording and images and the associated cost.
The GHS is being progressively implemented in 67 countries including Australia, the United States, China, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In Australia, the GHS is implemented by the Commonwealth and each state and territory (except the Australian Capital Territory).
'Hazardous chemicals' include pure substances, their dilute solutions and mixtures categorised as:
physical hazards, such as explosives and gases under pressure
health hazards, such as carcinogenic and toxic chemicals
environmental hazards, such as chemicals hazardous to the ozone layer.
Labels for hazardous chemicals must contain:
the relevant symbol for the hazard, imposed onto a pictogram
a signal word such as 'danger' or 'warning'
a hazard statement that describes the nature of the hazard, for example 'may cause cancer if inhaled'
a precautionary statement that describes the recommended measures to minimise the hazard risk.
The specific symbol and wording depends on the chemical classification. The GHS also sets out 16 minimum elements for Safety Data Sheets (SDS).
Compliance with the GHS Alone: Is it Enough?
In Australia, the short answer is 'no'. Most Australian jurisdictions impose additional requirements to the GHS.
The additional requirements include that:
the label must identify the ingredient that causes the hazardous chemical to fall within certain listed hazard classes, and the proportion of that ingredient to the rest of the chemical
the label must contain any information about the hazard, first aid and emergency procedures not included in the wording required by the GHS.
The GHS does not contain any requirements for packing hazardous chemicals. Most Australian jurisdictions require that:
the hazardous chemical must be packed in a container (in sound condition)
the container must be made of material compatible with the hazardous chemical.
Classification and SDS
Most Australian jurisdictions have adopted a modified version of the GHS classification regime and contain additional requirements for an SDS.
We recommend that businesses conduct a GHS review of their labelling and packaging for hazardous chemicals. If there is any doubt about complying with the GHS, it is best to get advice early rather than face possible prosecution as well as adverse publicity and penalties.