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Continuing our digest of OSHA’s Top 10 List of Most Frequently Cited Standards, we move on to the second most-commonly cited workplace violation – Hazard Communication (HazCom).  

OSHA’s HazCom standard addresses chemical hazards for chemicals produced in and imported into the workplace. It also governs the communication of hazards to workers, specifying the responsibilities of the chemical manufacturer, importer or employer and the requirements for an employer’s hazard communication plan. Employees have the right to know which chemicals they’re working with daily -but in the event of a chemical-related incident, they need to be able to quickly find and discern the exact information on the chemical and its hazards to respond appropriately.  

Having a strong HazCom plan is truly important to workplace health and safety, yet in 2023, there were a total of 3,213 citations of workplaces not complying to the Hazard Communication Standard. 

In order for workplaces to improve their safety and avoid violations and fines, we need to understand the purpose and key requirements of the standard, recognize where and how violations happen, and strategize what employers can do to meet this standard and keep their employees safe.  

What is OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard? 

At a high level, the purpose of OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard is to ensure the classification of chemical hazards and communication of those hazards as well as appropriate protective measures to employees. The requirements of the HazCom standard are:  

The HazCom Standard is a very detailed regulation and includes requirements and procedures that chemical manufacturers, importers and employers in various environments (laboratories vs. Shop floor) must follow to ensure that workers are not at risk, no matter where they’re working. 

Where do Hazard Communication violations typically occur?  

You might wonder how this could be such a common violation – it seems like an imperative part of an organization’s EHS & ESG program. Hazard. Communication. Whether it’s simply reading a label or finding the proper hazard response, it’s undeniably important that employees, contractors, and temporary workers are able to find and understand the right information for a chemical onsite.  

It’s also important to realize that HazCom citations are often from small issues, rather than an organization blatantly ignoring the standard. Things like oversights or incomplete/incorrect information can become a larger issue – and a large fine – when a worksite is inspected by OSHA.  

An organization can have all the required information, like a written plan, chemical inventory, SDSs and a training program, but it will still fail an inspection and receive a citation if its plan isn’t comprehensive, the chemical inventory list is incomplete, there are missing/incorrect SDSs, and/or the HazCom training given doesn’t actually equip employees with the knowledge they need to work safely.  

So, how can chemical manufacturers and importers, along with employers working with chemicals improve their EHS and ESG management system to meet the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard? We’ll break down each element of the standard, along with the typical issues that lead to citations, and what organizations can do to rectify these issues. 

Writing a Hazard Communication Plan 

We’ve talked before about what it means to write a strong and effective HazCom plan, and Part 4 of the Introduction to Hazard Communication blog post series does an incredible job of diving deep into how to develop a HazCom plan, who should be involved in the process, and how the plan should be written and shared.  

At the surface level, a written HazCom plan is required by OSHA to include: 

  • A list of the hazardous chemicals known to be present;  
  • Methods the employer will use to inform employees of the hazards of non-routine tasks;
  • Methods of informing employees about the hazards of chemicals in unlabeled pipes in their work areas;
  • Methods of managing HazCom, including providing access to SDSs, at multi-employer worksites; 
  • A description of how the Written Plan will be made available to employees – a physical hard copy or as a digital document;
  • A description of labeling management practices;
  • Methods of storing SDSs and providing right-to-know access to them;
  • A description of your HazCom training program.  

If a hazard communication plan is missing any of these details, then it’s not compliant with the standard. Follow the advice from the Intro to Hazard Communication: Part 4, Writing a Good HazCom Plan, to get started on writing your own. 

Let’s Talk Labels 

An important aspect of chemical information being easily available and understandable is the label of a product or chemical. Chemical manufacturers, importers and distributors are required to ensure that each container of hazardous chemicals leaving the workplace is labeled, tagged, or marked as well as legible.  

The following information is required to be labeled, tagged or marked on a chemical’s container: 

  • Product identifier;  
  • Signal word;  
  • Hazard statement(s);  
  • Pictogram(s);  
  • Precautionary statement(s); and,  
  • Name, address, and telephone number of the chemical manufacturer, importer, or other responsible party. 

Beyond ensuring that the correct labels are on the correct containers with the correct information, the labels need to be legible. Stickers and markers fade over time, they can peel off or get damaged in some way that reduces visibility/clarity of the labels, or someone might mark up or deface the container labels. The HazCom standard requires that all containers have in-tact and legible labels, and if not, that counts as a violation. Labeling requirements apply to all containers including situations where employees, contractors, or temporary workers transfer chemicals from the original shipping container to another container (often smaller container).  These containers are often referred to as secondary containers and the HazCom same labeling requirements apply as the original shipping label.  Secondary containers are often a potential source of non-compliance due to missing or incomplete labels. 

Complying to this aspect of the standard could be as simple as conducting routine inspections on all chemical containers to ensure labels are present, have the required information (as mentioned above) and easily legible.  

Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) 

An SDS is a document that accompanies a hazardous chemical and/or substance which outlines the dangers, composition, safe handling, and proper disposal of that chemical or substance. OSHA HazCom requires that SDSs conform to the UN’s Globally Harmonized System (GHS), which mandates use of a standardized 16-section format, arranged in a strict order. According to the standard, chemical manufacturers and importers are required to obtain or develop an SDS for each hazardous chemical they produce or import, and they must possess an SDS for each hazardous chemical that they use on site.  

The GHS SDS format includes the following section numbers and headings, and associated information under each heading, in this order:  

  • Section 1, Chemical identifier;  
  • Section 2, Hazard(s) identification;  
  •  Section 3, Composition/information on ingredients;  
  •  Section 4, First-aid measures;  
  •  Section 5, Fire-fighting measures;   
  •  Section 6, Accidental release measures;  
  •  Section 7, Handling and storage;  
  •  Section 8, Exposure controls/personal protection;  
  •  Section 9, Physical and chemical properties;  
  •  Section 10, Stability and reactivity;  
  •  Section 11, Toxicological information;  
  •  Section 12, Ecological information;  
  •  Section 13, Disposal considerations;  
  •  Section 14, Transport information;  
  •  Section 15, Regulatory information; and  
  •  Section 16, Other information, including date of preparation or last revision.  

The chemical manufacturer, importer or employer must rely on the most accurate and most recent information for the chemicals on site. If the chemical manufacturer/importer/employer preparing the safety data sheet becomes aware of any significant new information regarding the hazards of a chemical, or ways to protect against the hazards, this new information must be added to the safety data sheet within 90 days. 

A simple way to improve compliance with SDS retention and access requirements is to keep the original or most recent SDS for each chemical provided by the manufacturer, and keep it organized with the other SDSs somewhere that every employee, contractor, or temporary worker can readily access with no barriers.  

A “barrier” in this instance can be something as simple as keeping an SDS binder in a manager’s office, which is locked every time the manager leaves. If there’s an emergency and the manager isn’t there, employees aren’t able to get into the office to review the binder and determine the right next steps. That’s a violation. SDS binders could be kept in cabinets on the shop floor, but if they’re locked cabinets, that’s a violation.  

This is where having a cloud-based SDS management system like VelocityEHS helps immensely! The Accelerate platform allows organizations to maintain up-to-date chemical inventories, provide right-to-know access to SDSs and deliver training 24/7, from anywhere, in multiple languages. 

The Strongest Form of Defense – HazCom Training 

OSHA’s HazCom Standard protects workers by requiring employers to provide information they need to protect themselves from the hazardous chemicals they work with. OSHA states that the scope of who requires training is intentionally broad, and “includes any situation where a chemical is present in such a way that employees, contractors, or temporary workers may be exposed under normal conditions of use or in a foreseeable emergency.”  

OSHA also states that it, “does not expect that workers will be able to recall and recite all data provided about each hazardous chemical in the workplace. What is most important is that workers understand that they are exposed to hazardous chemicals, know how to read labels and SDSs, and have a general understanding of what information is provided in these documents, and how to access these tools.” 

According to the Standard, HazCom training needs to cover the following: 

  • The contents of the HazCom Standard itself, so that employees clearly understand the requirements of chemical manufacturers to provide safety data sheets (SDSs) and shipped container labels to downstream users, and the responsibilities of their employer to provide them with information about the hazards of the chemicals in the workplace;
  • Procedures and resources for labeling secondary containers;
  • Ways of detecting the presence or release of chemicals, whether through use of monitoring equipment or simple observations, such as odors or visible evidence such as sheens or stains;
  • The physical and health hazards of chemicals in the workplace, including those from simple asphyxiants, combustible dusts and pyrophoric gases, as well as any hazards not otherwise classified;
  • The ways that employees can protect themselves from chemical hazards, including through use of personal protective equipment (PPE), safe work practices, engineering controls, and any other specific procedures or controls implemented in the workplace.

The details of the employer’s written Hazard Communication Program, which needs to include: 

  • How SDSs and shipped labels will be managed;
  • The facility’s chemical inventory; 
  • Methods for accessing SDSs at the facility; 
  • Details of the workplace labeling system; 
  • How to properly store chemicals; 
  • What to do in the event of chemical emergencies;
  • Who to seek out for more information;
  • How/where to access the written plan and SDSs; 
  • Any other important details for effective HazCom management.  

Although it isn’t required by the standard, OSHA recommends documenting hazard communication training when it is given, with details including: 

  • Date of presentation; 
  • Learning objectives; 
  • Training program outline; 
  • Names of participants or employee identification numbers;  
  • Names of instructors; 
  • Any objective data, such as test results, demonstrating that learning objectives were met. 

In whichever way HazCom training is delivered, it needs to be effective – meaning that your people truly understand HazCom and the purpose for your workplace’s HazCom program. If OSHA visits or inspects your facility to evaluate your HazCom compliance, they wouldn’t be satisfied by seeing a list of training info, they would also interview employees, contractors, and temporary workers to ensure they understand the hazards in their workplace, know how to access SDSs, and are aware of safe work practices. It goes back to the information needing to be easy to understand. If HazCom training is delivered in a way that doesn’t resonate with employees, no one is really any safer.  

Counting the Costs of a HazCom Citation 

It’s a staggering fact that HazCom violations have risen by 19% from 2022 (2,682 violations) to 3,213 violations, but the percentage isn’t the only considerable number. There’s the cost of the violation itself. As of January 12, 2023, OSHA’s maximum penalties for serious and other-than-serious violations increased from $14,502, to $15,625 per violation. 

Doing the math (3,213 X $15,625), that adds up to a whopping and jaw-dropping potential total of $50,203,125 in 2023 penalties—there are also the direct costs of recovering from a HazCom incident as well as indirect costs that ripple through the rest of an organization. Getting a handle on the Hazard Communication Standard is a necessity for a workplace to operate efficiently and safely, and to ensure the health and well-being of your people. 

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard is a comprehensive regulation, and this post is meant to be an overview sharing key elements that can help organizations stay in compliance with the standard. If you’re looking for more details and information, please refer to the official regulation

Next up in OSHA’s Top 10 Most Frequently Cited Standards – Respiratory Protection.  

Catch up on all OSHA’s Top 10 List of Most Frequently Cited Standards Blog Series:

  1. Fall Protection—General Requirements
  2. Hazard Communication
  3. Ladders
  4. Scaffolding
  5. Powered Industrial Trucks
  6. Lockout/Tagout
  7. Respiratory Protection
  8. Fall Protection—Training Requirements
  9. Personal Protective and Lifesaving Equipment—Eye and Face Protection
  10. Machine Guarding