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Now that OSHA has revised its Hazard Communication Standard to align with GHS, the big question many employers, chemical manufacturers and distributors have is, “Can I continue to use NFPA and HMIS systems and labels?”

The short answer is yes.

However, whether or not they should (or will even want to over the long run) and exactly how they will do it are much more complex questions to answer. Let’s start with the basics.

HazCom 2012 Labels and NFPA/HMIS

OSHA calls its revised standard HazCom 2012, and in it, one of the biggest changes is to labels on shipped containers. Under the old HazCom Standard, which OSHA now calls HazCom 1994, labels on shipped containers and workplace labels were performance based. That means OSHA didn’t say exactly what had to appear on the label, instead, it said what effect the labels had to achieve, and then it determined compliance subjectively, based on how well they achieved their goal – that goal being to successfully transmit hazard information to the end user.

Under HazCom 1994, a lot of companies used NFPA and HMIS systems to meet requirements of the standard. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind, NFPA and HMIS are voluntary systems, which have never been mandatory under the HazCom Standard.

With GHS adoption, labels on shipped containers are more prescriptive, and include six standard elements:

  1. Product Identifier matching the product identifier on the safety data sheet
  2. Supplier Information including name, address and phone number of responsible party
  3. Signal Word, either “Danger” or “Warning” depending upon severity
  4. Pictogram(s), black hazard symbols on white background with red diamond borders that provide a quick visual reference of hazard information
  5. Hazard Statement(s) that describe the nature of the hazard and/or its severity
  6. Precautionary Statement(s) that provide important information on the safe handling, storage and disposal of the chemical

Exactly what information goes on the label for items 3-6 is determined by the classification/categorization of the chemical which also is much more systematic under GHS. For instance, any chemical that is classified as a Category 1 Flammable Liquid will carry on the label the signal word “Danger” and the hazard statement “Extremely flammable liquid and vapor.”

Where things start to get tricky between GHS and the NFPA/HMIS systems is in the use of numbers. With GHS, the lower the categorization number, the greater the severity of the hazard. This is opposite of the way numbers and severity relate to each other under NFPA and HMIS. For instance, with NFPA, the higher the number, the greater the severity.

An important difference between NFPA/HMIS systems and GHS/HazCom 2012 is the way they use numbers. The numbers in the GHS system, as adopted by OSHA, do not show up on the label, instead they are used to determine what goes on the label.  The numbers do appear on GHS formatted safety data sheets, in Section 2, but OSHA believes the use of numbers there will be less confusing since there is much more contextual information available to help the reader understand the hazard information. In the NFPA and HMIS systems, the numbers themselves appear on the label and are used to communicate information about the hazard.

OSHA takes time in the HazCom 2012 final rule to explore the concerns of stakeholders on this issue. The agency received considerable pushback during the rulemaking process from the NFPA and others, who feared that the differences between the NFPA and GHS could confuse workers who have been using the NFPA system for decades.

In response, OSHA basically said, 1) it understands the concerns that are out there, but it is sticking with what’s in GHS since the goal is global harmonization, and it aligns with what the DOT has already adopted;  2) numbers aren’t used on the HazCom 2012 label, so even if NFPA or HMIS info appears, it shouldn’t cause a problem; 3) categorization under the NFPA umbrella is not always uniform, so there is already variability in the marketplace; And 4) end users’ application of NFPA ratings are not always appropriate based on OSHA’s review of NFPA ratings correlated to information on safety data sheets.

The above notwithstanding, the bottom line is that companies can continue to use these systems. Labels on shipped containers will of course require the six basic GHS/HazCom 2012 styled label elements, but the inclusion of other additional information is also permitted. On the other hand, workplace labels continue to be performance based, and NFPA and HMIS systems are explicitly allowed under HazCom 2012. (More on workplace labeling in a moment.)

Here is what OSHA says in its own words about NFPA and HMIS:

I.            In the final rule published in the Federal Register on March 26, 2012, on page 17758, OSHA says “neither the proposal nor final rule prohibits the use of NFPA or HMIS rating systems.”

II.            On its HazCom Web page, in its FAQ’s, OSHA says:

The current standard provides employers with flexibility regarding the type of system to be used in their workplaces and OSHA has retained that flexibility in the revised Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). Employers may choose to label workplace containers either with the same label that would be on shipped containers for the chemical under the revised rule, or with label alternatives that meet the requirements for the standard. Alternative labeling systems such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704 Hazard Rating and the Hazardous Material Information System (HMIS) are permitted for workplace containers. However, the information supplied on these labels must be consistent with the revised HCS, e.g., no conflicting hazard warnings or pictograms.

III.            More recently, in an OSHA brief on labels published February 2013, OSHA stated,

“Employers may continue to use rating systems such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) diamonds or HMIS requirements for workplace labels as long as they are consistent with the requirements of the Hazard Communication Standard and the employees have immediate access to the specific hazard information as discussed above. An employer using NFPA or HMIS labeling must, through training, ensure that its employees are fully aware of the hazards of the chemicals used.”

What does the NFPA and American Coatings Association (ACA) Say?

MSDSonline does not speak for the NFPA or the ACA – the group behind the HMIS labels. However, we have reached out to both groups in recent months and have learned that as of now, neither group has any plans to update its systems to bring them into “alignment” with GHS/HazCom 2012.

There seems to be some confusion about this in the marketplace. Many employers we’ve talked to believe they can use those systems so long as they reverse the way the numbers are used. Again, based on communication we’ve had with the NFPA and ACA, neither system will be making any such adjustments. What both groups have told us is that OSHA allows companies to continue using the system as is, so they plan to let it ride for now.

Both groups did put forward that they intend to issue guidance for their users in the coming year on how best to use their systems in conjunction with GHS and HazCom 2012. So, if you use either of those systems, it’s something to be on the lookout for.

HazCom 2012 Safety Data Sheets and NFPA/HMIS

Another question we’ve been getting a lot, (especially from those seeking our services for SDS authoring we do) is “Does NFPA and HMIS information still need to be included on the Safety Data Sheet?”

This is a tricky question. NFPA and HMIS information was never required on a safety data sheet. Certainly, a lot of chemical manufacturers and distributors choose to include it, however, it has always been voluntary. Under HazCom 2012, safety data sheets get a formatting change, now requiring 16 sections in a strict order. OSHA also specifies what information should be included in each section. NFPA and HMIS information is still not a required section or sub-section.

That said, we are seeing that a number of chemical manufacturers and distributors are choosing to include it (not all manufacturers, but a good number). For those companies that choose to include it, the big question is where to put NFPA and HMIS information. Some companies are electing to add it to Section 2 – Hazard Identification. Some are adding NFPA information into Section 5 – Fire Fighting Measures. Still others are placing NFPA and HMIS info into Section 16 – Other Information.

At MSDSonline, our authors recommend putting the information into Section 16. We believe including it in Section 2 puts it too close to the mandatory HazCom 2012 classification information, thus increasing the potential for confusion. However, in Section 16, the information is far away from the HazCom required information and is under the umbrella of “other information” – which it technically is.

HazCom 2012 Workplace Labels and NFPA/HMIS

When it comes to workplace labels, secondary containers labels and the like, under HazCom 2012, OSHA gives employers a bit of flexibility.

  1. Employers can provide on their workplace label all of the information found on the label of the shipped container. This strategy has its merits since employers are already required to train their employees (by Dec. 1, 2013) on the new HazCom 2012 shipped label elements (listed earlier). Since they’ve already trained their employees on that information, replicating it on their workplace label creates a nice cohesive labeling system for their employees.
  2. Employers can use some combination of the shipped label elements, which, in conjunction with the training they provide employees on their labeling system and other information available in the workplace, provides workers with all of the relevant hazard information.
  3. Use a customized labeling system which, again, in conjunction with training on the labeling system and other information available in the workplace, provides workers with all of the relevant hazard information.
  4. Use an NFPA or HMIS styled system. If employers choose option ‘d’, the compliance obligation is to ensure employees – based on the employer labeling system and training and other information available in the workplace – are aware of all hazards of the chemicals to which they are exposed.

On the one hand, the bar is set very low for what has to go on a secondary workplace label. OSHA is leaving it up to the employer, allowing them to use whatever system is best for their specific workplace and employees – this includes using the same system employed under HazCom 1994, so long as it works and it addresses HazCom 2012 information. On the other hand, the bar is set relatively high for proving that your workplace labeling system achieves its goal of informing employees about the hazards of the chemicals they’re using.

Perhaps the most useful information about workplace labels comes from the OSHA directive to inspectors CPL 02-02-038, which provides this guidance to inspectors for testing for compliance:

CSHOs shall evaluate the effectiveness of in-plant labeling systems through a review of the employer’s training program and MSDS procedures. Such evaluation shall include interviews with employees to determine their familiarity with the hazards associated with chemicals in their workplace. An effective labeling system is one that ensures that employees are aware of the hazardous effects (including target organ effects) of the chemicals to which they are potentially exposed.

And later, in Appendix A adds:

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).

The key to evaluating the effectiveness of any alternative labeling method is to determine whether employees can correlate the visual warning on the in-plant container with the applicable chemical and its appropriate hazard warnings. The alternative labeling system must also be readily accessible to all employees in their work area throughout each work shift. For purposes of this provision, the term “other such written materials” does not include material safety data sheets used in lieu of labels.

In short, the test for compliance is to put the workplace label in front of an employee and to ask, “What are the hazards of this chemical?” Employers should think about their current system, would their employees be able to meet that level of scrutiny?

If employers do anything other than replicate the shipping label, they may be setting themselves up for additional training, and could be placing additional burdens on employees to handle two labeling systems (the shipped label and the workplace label.) Our recommendation is not to ask, “What’s the least amount information I can put on a label and still be compliant?” Instead, a better approach would be to ask, “How can I best provide employees with as much information as possible to mitigate the risk of exposure and a potential accident?”

So Should We Keep Using NFPA & HMIS or Switch to GHS?

This is truly something every employer will need to answer for themselves. Here are some things they should think about as they make their decision.

In informal polls we’ve taken doing presentations around the country with different safety groups, when we ask safety professionals how many of them use an NFPA or HMIS styled system today, most hands go up. When we ask how many think they will be using those systems five years from now, few hands go up.

The popularity of HMIS and NFPA systems really grew out of the vacuum that existed for communicating the hazards of workplace chemicals. Now that OSHA has filled that vacuum, many of the safety professionals we work with say they don’t want to carry two systems and are looking to make the switch to a HazCom 2012 styled workplace labeling system.

The great thing for employers going that route is that today’s electronic MSDS management solutions make it easier to do. For example, VelocityEHS Chemical Management solutions allow users to print workplace labels from their computers using information indexed off of safety data sheets.

Regarding HMIS and NFPA vs. GHS, our guess is that over the long run, most U.S. employers will gravitate exclusively to the GHS system as adopted by OSHA and not choose to have both systems in play. In the meantime, employee training is going to be key to ensure workers understand the hazards of the chemicals they work with and that they are comfortable with the variety of hazard information presented in the workplace.