Workplace Labels and OSHA GHS Fear-mongering

Multiple clients who use chemicals in the course of their businesses have recently asked us questions such as these: “A label company salesperson is telling me that effective June 1, 2015, OSHA will require labels on chemical containers to have pictograms, signal words and hazard and precautionary statements.  Do we have to relabel all the manufacturers’ containers of chemicals we bought before that date?  Do we have to add all that stuff to the labels on the secondary containers we filled and labeled ourselves?   Should I spend a bunch of money on blank labels and GHS labeling software, and a bunch of time relabeling everything?”   A few of these clients have been in a near panic, losing sleep at night, because they believe the date is looming to relabel everything.

Reading the regulations and countless summaries of it posted all over the web, I can understand where those clients’ fears are coming from.  It’s a lot of information and not all of it clear.  It’s also possible the labeling company salespeople are not quite clear on what the rules are for relabeling, and have just assumed the new rules should mean they will get a bunch of new business from people who need to relabel their secondary containers.

The rules for secondary containers say labels have to have the product identifier and words, pictures, symbols or a combination thereof.  And the rules say all products in manufacturer’s containers have to have the new labels.   Doesn’t that sound like you better get out there and start slapping on some new labels?  A massive relabeling project will take time and resources a lot of companies would rather use for something more pressing.   No wonder some of my clients are getting chest pains.  But hold on, that doesn’t seem to be what the rule has in mind.

First, those containers you filled and labeled yourselves.  These are “secondary containers”, and those home-made labels are referred to as workplace labels.

Here’s the word from OSHA on that: “If an employer has an in-plant or workplace system of labeling that meets the requirements of HazCom 1994, the employer may continue to use this system in the workplace as long as this system, in conjunction with other information immediately available to the employees, provides the employees with the information on all of the health and physical hazards of the hazardous chemical. This workplace labeling system may include signs, placards, process sheets, batch tickets, operating procedures, or other such written materials to identify hazardous chemicals. Any of these labeling methods or a combination thereof may be used instead of a label from the manufacturer, importer or distributer as long as the employees have immediate access to all of the information about the hazards of the chemical. Workplace labels must be in English. Other languages may be added to the label if applicable.”

You do not have to add symbols, pictograms, etc. to secondary containers as long as your labels have the identity of the contents and the main applicable hazards, and your people can understand the labels you use.  If your labels were good before the new rule, they are good now.

Next, those older containers in your warehouse, in your storage cabinets and under your tables.  These are called “shipped containers”, because they are containers the manufacturers filled, labeled and shipped to you, the customer, and the labels on them are referred to as manufacturer’s labels.

You do not have to relabel those old manufacturer-labeled containers which lack pictograms simply because they were made before the new rule kicked in:  “The employer is not responsible for updating labels on shipped containers, even if the shipped containers are labeled under HazCom 1994. The employer must relabel items if the labels are removed or defaced. However, if the employer is aware of newly-identified hazards that are not disclosed on the label, the employer must ensure that the workers are aware of the hazards as discussed below under workplace labels.”

Therefore, once you buy a labeled container of a chemical, the original label is fine, even if it’s not equipped with pictograms.

If the manufacturer’s original label falls off, or the contents are transferred into a secondary container, you have flexibility as to the labels, and don’t have to add symbols, pictograms, etc. as long as the new labels identify the contents and the main applicable hazards, and your people can understand the labels you use.

Want to see this for yourself?  It’s in here:  https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3636.pdf

I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing a good, thorough job on labeling, and if you think ictures and symbols will help your workforce be safer with chemicals, go for it. This could be particularly true where we have high turnover, employees from other countries who are not comfortable with our language, or a baffling array of super-dangerous chemicals.   The new rule is performance based, just like the old rule was.  The proof of performance isn’t just in what your labels look like but also how well your employees understand what’s on them.  If your existing workplace labels were in compliance with the hazard communication rules before the GHS changes and your employees can demonstrate good understanding, there’s no need to relabel.


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