Skip navigation
GHS: It's a Process, Not a Light Switch

GHS: It's a Process, Not a Light Switch

Many U.S. chemical manufacturers are ready to update their safety data sheets and labels, only to be stuck waiting for upstream providers to make changes of their own.

When OSHA revised its Hazard Communication standard to align with the U.N.'s hazcom model – the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, or GHS – the agency set U.S. chemical manufacturers on a path of compliance deadlines. The biggest of those deadlines is less than a year away, and it could be a bumpy transition. 

June 1, 2015, is the date when OSHA expects chemical manufacturers and distributors to reclassify their hazardous chemicals using the adopted GHS health and physical criteria, and to make format updates to safety data sheets and chemical labels. So far, so good – the date and the compliance expectations are pretty straightforward. However, looking at the way chemical supply chains operate, the deadline is going to be a hard target for all covered companies to hit at the same time.

For instance, let's say Company C creates a chemical product that uses chemicals from Company A and Company B. In order to update the chemical classification for its product and update its safety data sheets and labels, Company C likely will be relying on information from Company A and Company B. Yet, if Company A and Company B wait until the June 1, 2015, deadline to make their updates (as they have the right to do), then Company C will have to wait until after the deadline in order to make its own changes.

Come June 1, 2015, employers should not expect the flow of updated SDSs in the GHS format to happen like a light switch flipping to the "on" position, instantly flooding a room with light.

This scenario is playing out in real time today. Many U.S. chemical manufacturers are ready to update their safety data sheets and labels, only to be stuck waiting for upstream providers to make changes of their own. Unfortunately, the fallout from these GHS transition issues isn't limited to the chemical manufacturer/distributor side of the equation. The effects are being felt by downstream employers and safety professionals, and will continue to be felt in the foreseeable future. 

'Frankenstein' Safety Data Sheets

Employers are a little bit ahead of the compliance game. Their first deadline was December 2013, when employers were required to train workers on the updated formats for safety data sheets and labels. (Note: The training requirement is an ongoing obligation, and any employer with employees exposed to hazardous chemicals that has not completed training on the GHS formats is out of compliance now.)

Under the new GHS format, safety data sheets undergo a name change. Instead of being called "MSDS," they're called "SDS." More importantly, the GHS format mandates that the documents have 16 sections in a strict order, as follows:

  1. Identification
  2. Hazard(s) identification
  3. Composition/information on 
  4. First aid measures
  5. Firefighting measures
  6. Accidental-release measures
  7. Handling and storage
  8. Exposure controls/personal protection
  9. Physical and chemical properties
  10. Stability and reactivity
  11. Toxicological information
  12. Ecological information
  13. Disposal considerations
  14. Transport information
  15. Regulatory information
  16. Other information

Labels also underwent a dramatic format change, with the addition of six standard elements on manufacturer labels, those being:

  1. Product identifier
  2. Signal word
  3. Pictogram(s)
  4. Hazard statement(s)
  5. Precautionary statement(s)
  6. Supplier information

Having completed the employee training on the GHS formats, many employers expected that the updated SDS would be readily available in the marketplace. Instead, not only have most safety data sheets not been updated yet, but it also looks like many won't be updated until well after the June 1, 2015, deadline.

Confusing the matter is the fact that some forward-thinking companies have completed the transition and made their SDS available to downstream users. Some employers, seeing these new changes and not understanding the timing of the deadlines, wonder why all of their safety data sheets have not been updated. Another issue is that some chemical manufacturers and distributors are making the switch to the SDS format in stages. 

Instead of making a clean, one-time switch from their current MSDS format to the new SDS format, some companies are mixing elements of the GHS format with their old safety data sheets, to create a sort of hybrid document that contains some new and some old elements. The result is an MSDS that is compliant under today's Hazard Communication standard, but not compliant with the requirements for the June 1, 2015, compliance deadline. We have nicknamed these hybrid documents "Frankenstein MSDS."

Frankenstein MSDS cause confusion for employers because they must be taken seriously, as they're compliant with today's hazcom standard and might contain new hazard information that employees must be informed of and trained on, but they lack the structure and predictability that the GHS format provides – and in the end they just postpone the inevitable move to GHS.

To reiterate, employers must take every safety data sheet sent to them from chemical manufacturers and distributors seriously, even if they fall short of the GHS format bar. In a June 31, 2013, letter of interpretation, OSHA clarified that where an employer is maintaining MSDS in addition to SDS, the employer's hazard communication program and training program must reflect this. 

It doesn't mean that employers have to keep two sets of MSDS books – one for old formats and one for new. However, it does mean that employers must ensure that employees are aware of and can navigate the differences in variation of safety data sheets that they're handling. Some new GHS-styled safety data sheets have hit the marketplace, but most chemical manufacturers and distributors have not made the transition. And come June 1, 2015, employers should not expect the flow of updated SDS in the GHS format to happen like a light switch flipping to the "on" position, instantly flooding a room with light.

 Instead, the move to GHS-styled SDS will be like the progression of a flame from one candle to the next as the light slowly moves from person to person, spreading until finally reaching the furthest-most outliers.  

What Employers Should Do

First and foremost, employers who haven't trained their employees on the new formats should make that a top priority. It's possible that some new SDS have made their way into your workplace and, with new elements like hazard pictograms, could be causing some confusion for employees.

Second, ensure that all points of entry into your facility are on the watch for updated safety data sheets. When an employer makes a material change to a safety data sheet, usually there's a corresponding action that the employer must take to inform employees of changes. 

Third, get your house in order. With the bulk of the safety data sheet churn still in front of us, now's the time to ensure that you have a current safety data sheet for all of your hazardous chemicals. This will make tracking the updates to your library much easier and mitigate risk to employees.

Next, once the floodgates do open, updating every safety data sheet in your facility could be a daunting task. There are a number of affordable electronic solutions that can take the pain out of managing the SDS update. Today's electronic chemical management solutions automatically push SDS updates to your account and allow you to filter by GHS and other criteria so you can get a quick snapshot of your transition to GHS/hazcom compliance. 

Finally, the final deadline for employers is June 1, 2016. That's the date by which OSHA expects that employers will have completed the transition to GHS and will have made any necessary updates to their hazcom plans and labeling strategy. If you're lagging behind in understanding all of your responsibilities, this is the time to get caught up.

The transition to GHS might not be a light-switch moment, but if you're caught flat-footed, it could end up feeling like being hit by a slow-moving freight train. 

Glenn Trout is president and CEO
of MSDSonline, a provider of cloud-based
compliance solutions for MSDS and
other EHS information. 

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.