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November 29, 2000

Understanding the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard 29 CFR 1910.1200

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) is based on a simple concept - that employees have both a need and a right to know the hazards and identities of the chemicals they are exposed to when working.  They also need to know what protective measures are available to prevent adverse effects from occurring.  The HCS is designed to provide employees with the information they need.

Knowledge acquired under the HCS will help employers provide safer workplaces for their employees. When employers have information about the chemicals being used, they can take steps to reduce exposures, substitute less hazardous materials, and establish proper work practices. These efforts will help prevent the occurrence of work-related illnesses and injuries caused by chemicals.

This standard is long and complex and considered to be one of the most confusing OSHA standards.  Employers often find it difficult to understand and implement all of the requirements.  As a result, the HCS continues to be one of the most frequently cited OSHA standards. 

If you are operating in an OSHA-approved State Plan State, you must comply with the State's requirements, which may be different than those of the Federal rule.  Many of the State Plan States had hazard communication or "right-to-know" laws prior to promulgation of the Federal rule.  Employers in State Plan States should contact their State OSHA offices for more information regarding applicable requirements.

Hazard Determination

The HCS requires information to be prepared and transmitted regarding all hazardous chemicals.  The HCS covers both physical hazards (such as flammability), and health hazards (such as irritation, lung damage, and cancer).  Most chemicals used in the workplace have some hazard potential, and thus will be covered by the rule. 

The standard's design is simple.  Chemical manufacturers and importers must evaluate the hazards of the chemicals they produce or import.  Using that information, they must then prepare labels for containers, and more detailed technical bulletins called Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).

Chemical manufacturers, importers, and distributors of hazardous chemicals are all required to provide the appropriate labels and material safety data sheets to the employers to which they ship the chemicals.  The information is to be provided automatically.  Every container of hazardous chemicals you receive must be labeled, tagged, or marked with the required information.  Your suppliers must also send you a properly completed material safety data sheet (MSDS) at the time of the first shipment of the chemical, and with the next shipment after the MSDS is updated with new and significant information about the hazards.

You can rely on the information received from your suppliers.  You have no independent duty to analyze the chemical or evaluate the hazards of it. 

Written Hazard Communication Program

All workplaces where employees are exposed to hazardous chemicals must have a written plan which describes how the standard will be implemented in that facility.  Preparation of a plan is not just a paper exercise - all of the elements must be implemented in the workplace in order to be in compliance with the rule.

The only work operations which do not have to comply with the written plan requirements are laboratories and work operations where employees only handle chemicals in sealed containers.  See paragraph (b) of the regulation, scope and application, for the specific requirements for these two types of workplaces

The plan does not have to be lengthy or complicated.  It is intended to be a blueprint for implementation of your program - an assurance that all aspects of the requirements have been addressed.

If OSHA inspects your workplace for compliance with the HCS, the OSHA compliance officer will ask to see your written plan at the outset of the inspection.  In general, the following items will be considered in evaluating your program:  the written program must describe how the requirements for labels and other forms of warning, material safety data sheets, and employee information and training, are going to be met in your facility.  

The following is the type of information that compliance officers will be looking for to decide whether these elements of the hazard communication program have been properly addressed:

Labels and Other Forms of Warning

In-plant containers of hazardous chemicals must be labeled, tagged, or marked with the identity of the material and appropriate hazard warnings.  Chemical manufacturers, importers, and distributors are required to ensure that every container of hazardous chemicals they ship is appropriately labeled with such information and with the name and address of the producer or other responsible party.

Employers purchasing chemicals can rely on the labels provided by their suppliers.  If the material is subsequently transferred by the employer from a labeled container to another container, the employer will have to label that container unless it is subject to the portable container exemption.  See paragraph (f) of this regulation for specific labeling requirements.

The primary information to be obtained from an OSHA-required label is an identity for the material, and appropriate hazard warnings.  Labels must be legible, and prominently displayed.  There are no specific requirements for size or color, or any specified text.

Employers that are purchasing and using hazardous chemicals - rather than producing or distributing them - will primarily be concerned with ensuring that every purchased container is labeled.  If materials are transferred into other containers, the employer must ensure that these are labeled as well, unless they fall under the portable container exemption (paragraph (f)(7) of this regulation).  

In terms of labeling systems, you can simply choose to use the labels provided by your suppliers on the containers. These will generally be verbal text labels, and do not usually include numerical rating systems or symbols that require special training. The most important thing to remember is that this is a continuing duty - all in-plant containers of hazardous chemicals must always be labeled.  Therefore, it is important to designate someone to be responsible for ensuring that the labels are maintained as required on the containers in your facility, and that newly purchased materials are checked for labels prior to use.

Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)

Chemical manufacturers and importers are required to obtain or develop a material safety data sheet for each hazardous chemical they produce or import.  Distributors are responsible for ensuring that their customers are provided a copy of these MSDSs.  Employers must have an MSDS for each hazardous chemical which they use.  Employers may rely on the information received from their suppliers.

The specific requirements for material safety data sheets are in paragraph (g) of this regulation. There is no specified format for the MSDS under the rule, although there are specific information requirements.  OSHA has developed a non-mandatory format, OSHA Form 174, which may be used by chemical manufacturers and importers to comply with the rule.  The MSDS must be in English.

You are entitled to receive from your supplier a data sheet which includes all of the information required under the rule. If you do not receive one automatically, you should request one.  If you receive one that is obviously inadequate, with, for example, blank spaces that are not completed, you should request an appropriately completed one.  If your request for a data sheet or for a corrected data sheet does not produce the information needed, you should contact your local OSHA Area Office for assistance in obtaining the MSDS.

The role of MSDSs under the rule is to provide detailed information on each hazardous chemical, including its potential hazardous effects, its physical and chemical characteristics, and recommendations for appropriate protective measures.  This information should be useful to you as the employer responsible for designing protective programs, as well as to the workers.  If you are not familiar with material safety data sheets and with chemical terminology, you may need to learn to use them yourself. A glossary of MSDS terms may be helpful in this regard. Generally speaking, most employers using hazardous chemicals will primarily be concerned with MSDS information regarding hazardous effects and recommended protective measures. Focus on the sections of the MSDS that are applicable to your situation.

MSDSs must be readily accessible to employees when they are in their work areas during their workshifts.  This may be accomplished in many different ways.  You must decide what is appropriate for your particular workplace.  Some employers keep the MSDSs in a binder in a central location (e.g., in the pick-up truck on a construction site, in the break room or supervisor's office).  Others, particularly in workplaces with large numbers of chemicals, computerize the information and provide access through terminals.  As long as employees can get the information when they need it, any approach may be used.

For employers using hazardous chemicals, the most important aspect of the written program in terms of MSDSs is to ensure that someone is responsible for obtaining and maintaining the MSDSs for every hazardous chemical in the workplace. The list of hazardous chemicals required to be maintained as part of the written program will serve as an inventory.  As new chemicals are purchased, the list should be updated.  Many companies have found it convenient to include on their purchase orders the name and address of the person designated in their company to receive MSDSs.

In addition to these specific items, compliance officers will also be asking the following questions in assessing the adequacy of the program:

  • Does a list of the hazardous chemicals exist in each work area or at a central location?
  • Are methods the employer will use to inform employees of the hazards of non-routine tasks outlined?
  • Are employees informed of the hazards associated with chemicals contained in unlabeled pipes in their work areas?
  • On multi-employer worksites, has the employer provided other employers with information about labeling systems and precautionary measures where the other employers have employees exposed to the initial employer's chemicals?
  • Is the written program made available to employees and their designated representatives?
  • If your program adequately addresses the means of communicating information to employees in your workplace, and provides answers to the basic questions outlined above, it will be found to be in compliance with the rule.

Checklist for Compliance

The following checklist will help to ensure you are in compliance with the Hazard Communication Standard:

  • Obtained a copy of the rule. ______________
  • Read and understood the requirements. ______________
  • Assigned responsibility for tasks. ______________
  • Prepared an inventory of chemicals. ______________
  • Ensured containers are labeled. ______________
  • Obtained MSDS for each chemical. ______________
  • Prepared written program. ______________
  • Made MSDSs available to workers. ______________
  • Conducted training of workers. ______________
  • Established procedures to maintain current program. ______________
  • Established procedures to evaluate effectiveness. ______________

Further Assistance

OSHA has provided a simple summary of the HCS in a pamphlet entitled "Chemical Hazard Communication," OSHA Publication Number 3084.  A copy may be obtained from your local OSHA Area Office, or by contacting the OSHA Publications Office at (202) 523-9667.

For additional information see the OSHA home page at http://www.osha.gov/.

Coming next month we will continue the Hazard Communication theme by simplifying the Material Safety Data Sheet.  Join us as we unravel the mystery behind the information on a MSDS!

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