OSHA Praised, Prodded at MSDS Senate Hearing

March 30, 2004
What started out as a hearing on the effectiveness of OSHA's Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), appeared to end up as an appeal for legislation requiring the agency to adopt the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) for labeling chemicals.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Employment, Safety, and Training Subcommittee said he called the hearing "because I've had complaints from employers and employees about MSDSs." Those complaints centered on the accuracy of MSDSs, their comprehensibility to the average worker and employer and the difficulty of complying with OSHA requirements, he said.

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, who testified first, won praise from many witnesses at the hearings for the agency's new initiative, intended to address many of the problems with MSDSs. The agency announced the initiative a week before the hearing. Henshaw explained the OSHA program has three elements:

  • Compliance assistance, outreach through new alliances and a new portal on OSHA's Web site;
  • Additional enforcement of the hazard communication standard (HCS);
  • Consideration of adopting the GHS and preparation of a guide to raise awareness of the GHS.

One of the alliances OSHA formed to improve the MSDS system is with the Society for Chemical Hazard Communication (SCHC).

Anne Jackson, corporate safety director for Pepperidge Farm Inc., provided one of the bluntest assessments of the current problems with MSDSs. Jackson said the shortcomings of today's MSDs are numerous, but the origin of the problem is a lack of focus by OSHA and chemical suppliers on the true purpose of the requirement protecting employees.

"Unfortunately, this is where the current MSDSs fail miserably," declared Jackson. "The MSDSs I have to work with at Pepperidge Farm usually fall into one of two categories: those written by attorneys for attorneys and those written by chemical engineers for chemical engineers."

Jackson, who testified on behalf of the American Bakers Association, appeared to criticize the current OSHA initiative when she called on OSHA to open its doors and meet with those who use MSDSs every day, e.g. employers and employees. Specifically, she recommended the agency develop a standard format for MSDSs, use of electronic systems and clarification of when and where MSDSs are needed.

Michele Sullivan, chairman of the SCHC board of directors, Tom Grumbles, president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers of America, all argued that adoption by the United States of the GHS would address many of the problems with the current MSDS system.

The GHS would require the standardization of forms, and its use of pictograms and common expressions would improve its intelligibility for semi-literate and non-English-speaking workers while helping companies to compete in the international marketplace.

Wright appealed to Congress, beginning with Enzi's subcommittee, to take a step that "would make a dramatic difference….begin the work of adopting the GHS.". Wright argued that OSHA rulemaking is too cumbersome to deal with standards derived from a decade of international negotiations, and so the only effective way to adopt GHS is through legislation.

At the end of the hearing, Enzi said he would "take a look at GHS and see if legislation is possible."

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