The Global Harmonized System & OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard: Where Are We?

By now, most employers and industry environmental health & safety (EHS) professionals should be familiar with the general requirements of the Global Harmonized System (GHS) and how it affects the 2012 OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) update. However, being familiar does not always directly translate into being compliant and/or having the needed understanding of these requirements.


According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), revising the HCS is expected to prevent more than 500 workplace injuries and illnesses and 43 fatalities annually. Once fully implemented it will also:

  • Improve the quality and consistency of hazard information in the workplace – making it safer for workers to do their jobs and easier for employers to stay competitive
  • Enhance worker comprehension of hazards, especially for low- and limited-literacy workers; reduce confusion in the workplace; facilitate safety training; and result in safer handling and use of chemicals
  • Provide workers quicker and more efficient access to information on Safety Data Sheets (SDS’s)
  • Result in cost savings to American businesses of more than $475 million in productivity improvements, fewer SDS and label updates, and simpler new hazard communication training
  • Reduce trade barriers by harmonizing with systems around the world 1

Increasing worker protection, saving lives and creating a significant cost savings would seemingly be a great incentive for employers to fully comply with the revised HCS regulatory requirements. However, based on recent OSHA citation statistics, for many employers there seems to be a disconnect between understanding the new requirements and implementation in their programs and training.

Recent GHS Developments

In 2017, OSHA reported that the HCS (1910.1200) was still the second most cited Standard after fall protection. Of the more than 4,600 HCS-related citations issued by OSHA in fiscal year 2016, the vast majority (over 2,700) involved failure to implement a written program or failure to provide adequate training. 2

While the final requirements of the 2012 revision of the HCS have been fully phased-in for almost two years now, there is still confusion for many stakeholders on this important regulation.

Helpful Resources

By 2016, employers should have completed the transition to the applicable GHS requirements – including the basic changes to labeling, SDS revision, and training. The OSHA website provides plenty of guidance documents and information, including the 432-page guide Hazard Communication: Hazard Classification Guidance for Manufacturers, Importers, and Employers (OSHA Publication 3844). For those employers engaged in the importation and distribution of hazardous chemicals, this is a must. However, most stakeholders fall into the “employer” usage category, so the bigger issues are container labeling and training.
If an employer had a handle on the old regulation, an important reference remains the complete (60+ pages) comparison guide – providing a side-by-side view of the old standard vs. what is required under the revised regulation (

One of the most confounding aspects is that, in some cases, employers can still use parts of the “old” labeling systems – National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) or Hazardous Material Identification System (HMIS) – for communicating hazards on existing containers. This is, undoubtedly, one of the more helpful, but also confusing aspects of the new rules. 3

If all that doesn’t provide enough information, there is yet another definitive guide for compliance. The OSHA HCS compliance directive (, designed for OSHA field inspectors, should answer many questions on what OSHA is looking for at a facility. Generally, inspectors look for updated written programs, training which covers the revised SDS and labeling systems, as well as proper hazard determinations for those employers required to
address that aspect of the revised HCS.

Don’t Get Caught “Moving Ahead”

Many employers probably don’t realize that the GHS system is still evolving in many countries; and if employers align themselves directly with the most recent versions of GHS, they are open to citations. According to the OSHA compliance directive, HCS 2012 is based on the GHS Revision 3 (2009). Some employers may want to comply with more recent or future versions of GHS issued by the United Nations (i.e., Revision 4). However, using a more recent version of GHS may result in noncompliance with HCS 2012, if it contradicts or cast doubt on OSHA-required information. 4

DOT Hazardous Materials Regulation Labeling Requirements

Lastly, to add to the mix, other U.S. regulatory agencies have implemented their own versions of the labeling rules. The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency both have similar, but separate, guidelines for GHS-related labeling of hazardous chemicals within their jurisdictions. To provide some clarification, OSHA and DOT issued a joint guidance document on labeling. 5

DOT’s Hazardous Materials Regulation (HMR) requires labeling to be displayed or provided with a shipment during transportation in commerce. OSHA’s HCS 2012 labeling is not required on shipping containers in transport, even when DOT’s HMR does not require labeling.

International Agency Regulations and Requirements

Since other countries could be using newer revisions of the GHS, companies that ship internationally must always be familiar with the rules in the country to which they are exporting. A summary of international guidelines that provides a breakdown by country and agency is provided by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Information on the various international labeling regulations can be found at:

HETI…A Resource for Regulatory Compliance

No one disagrees that the intention of the GHS update to the OSHA 2012 HCS is to promote better understanding worldwide regarding the hazards of chemicals while in the workplace and during transportation. Ensuring that employers fully implement the new requirements and that employees understand the new systems is the challenging part.

HETI has extensive experience in supporting our clients through a comprehensive range of EHS regulatory support services. Our EHS professionals can provide guidance and valuable technical support with respect to compliance with the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard/Global Harmonized System, as well as other OSHA regulations. Whether there is a need for labelling and/or SDS support or assistance with client-specific employee training…HETI is here to help.



For more information about HETI’s regulatory support and EHS services, please contact us.