Great Answers to Difficult OSHA HazCom 2012 Questions

As the proverbial combustible dust starts to settle from OSHA’s recent revision of the Hazard Communication Standard, also called HazCom 2012, many of the questions we’ve been getting at MSDSonline have a similar theme: “What’s the minimum my company has to do to be compliant?”

This is particularly true for questions around secondary container labeling, where everyone wants to know what is the minimum amount of information required on a workplace label.

For this type of question, the answer is almost always “Mu.”

Fans of Robert M. Persig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or practitioners of Zen Koans, might recognize the word ‘mu’ as meaning: un-ask the question; or your question cannot be answered using the precepts provided; or even – I reject the question.

It is the best answer to questions about OSHA’s revised HCS that combine the words minimum and compliance, because approaching chemical safety with that mindset is to start off on the wrong foot, almost ensuring you’ll end up with the wrong conclusion.

Ask a Better Question

A better question would be “How can I best comply with HazCom 2012, and do so in a way that minimizes risk and makes the workplace safer for employees?”

You can see the difference asking the question this way makes and how the answer should lead the asker to a better result. Now ask yourself, where would you want your son or daughter to work? For a company that asks questions the first way or the second way? Which company would you want to work for?

Taking the approach “How can I best safeguard employees?” will almost always lead to compliance. Whereas, the approach “What’s the least I can do to avoid OSHA penalties?” will not only make compliance more difficult, but can even lead to unsafe workplaces.

Going back to the question about secondary container labels, what is required on the secondary label? Do you have to include all of the information found on a shipping label (i.e., product name, pictogram(s), signal word, hazard statements, and precautionary statements)? Or could you simply put the name of the chemical on the container and leave it at that?

Expert Answers to Tough Questions

Here is how Glenn Trout, president of MSDSonline and Jennifer Silk, occupational safety and health consultant, answered a similar question about secondary container labels via a recent Webinar for the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

Do secondary containers require full labeling? Currently they may state only the chemical contained in the bottle.

…There is nothing in the HCS that says an employer may state “only” the chemical contained in the bottle. The current system follows a performance based approach to labeling, as does HazCom 2012.

Employers would do well when thinking about workplace labels to not ask “what’s the least amount of information I can put on a label to be compliant?” Instead, the better question would be, “How can I best convey information about the hazards of this chemical to my employees via a workplace label?”

From strictly a compliance perspective, choosing to label your workplace containers with anything other than the information provided on the shipped label opens your label up to subjective interpretation. During an OSHA inspection, the inspector will be looking to see that the employer has made a “good faith” effort to inform employees of the relevant hazards via their secondary labeling system. Providing the least amount of information you can get away with is not an effective strategy.

Furthermore, the current test for determining if a secondary label system is compliant is somewhat rigorous, as evident from the following excerpt from OSHA Directive Number CPL 02-02-038 –Title: Inspection Procedures for the Hazard Communication Standard.

“Workplace Labeling

The standard recognizes the use of alternative in-plant labeling systems such as the HMIS (Hazardous Material Information System), NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), and others which may be used in industry. These systems rely on numerical and/or alphabetic codes to convey hazards and are generally non-specific. OSHA has permitted these types of in-plant labeling systems to be used when an employer's overall HCS program is proven to be effective despite the potential absence of target organ information on container labels. Under these circumstances, the employer should assure - through more intensified training - that its employees are fully aware of the hazards of the chemicals used. Additionally, employers must ensure that their training program instructs employees on how to use and understand the alternative labeling systems so that employees are aware of the effects (including target organ effects) of the hazardous chemicals to which they are potentially exposed. CSHOs should determine whether workers can recognize what hazards correspond to what code ratings/symbols. This can be achieved through employee interviews.

Employers using alternative labeling systems must ensure that their employees are aware of all information required to be conveyed under the HCS. OSHA will make a plant-specific determination of the effectiveness of the complete program when an inspection is conducted. Any employer who relies on one of these types of alternative labeling systems, instead of using labels containing complete health effects information will - in any enforcement action alleging the inadequacy of the labeling system - bear the burden of establishing that it has achieved a level of employee awareness which equals or exceeds that which would have been achieved if the employer had used labels containing complete health effects information (59 F.R. 6156)".

This above directive will likely be updated in the wake of GHS alignment; however, the resulting directive is not expected to be any less stringent.

An important part of their answer is in the third paragraph where they point out that during an inspection, OSHA inspectors will be looking to see that the employer has made a “good faith” effort to inform employees.

What qualifies as “good faith” is subjective, meaning that even if an OSHA inspector approves of the way one company handles secondary container labels, it does not necessarily mean that the another inspector will approve of your company handling them the same way. Performance-based guidelines are used precisely because every situation is unique and a one-size-fits-all approach fails to account for the variability in the workforce, facility, chemicals used, etc.

The Safest Approach Does Not Have to Be the Most Expensive

Today’s technology often means that the safer approach is also the better, more cost effective approach. For instance, when it comes to labeling secondary containers, a great electronic MSDS and chemical management solution can simplify the task.

For example, in MSDSonline’s chemical management solutions, label information can be indexed directly from the safety data sheet and used to create OSHA/GHS, WHMIS compliant labels, or even custom labels.

Speaking more generally, cloud-based solutions are sustainable and very affordable when compared with the costs associated with managing chemical information manually with paper and three-ring binder systems – let alone, using a manual system to create hand-written labels.

Electronic systems help bridge the gap between merely being compliant and providing the best information possible.

Get Even More Great Answers to Difficult HazCom 2012 Questions

If you would like even more answers to difficult GHS related questions, register for our FREE 35 Page Q&A on HazCom 2012 with Trout and Silk. This Q&A includes answers to HazCom 2012 FAQ’s like:

  • Do chemicals used/stored in the workplace prior to HazCom 2012 require updated labels?
  • Will NFPA and HMIS labeling systems still be applicable after GHS adoption?
  • With HazCom 2012, will employers have to hold onto MSDSs for 30 years?
  • Does HazCom 2012 training require certification?