Chemical Safety Questions? Read the Label!

On Wednesday and Thursday, we looked at ways to protect workers’ skin from chemical and other workplace hazards. Today our Safety Training Tips editor discusses the importance of reading — and understanding — chemical warning labels.

OSHA requires labels on chemical containers. The Hazard Communication Standard requires chemical manufacturers and distributors to label chemical containers with warnings and other important safety information. Chemical container labels are a vital part of your employees’ right to know about chemical hazards in the workplace—another requirement of the Hazard Communication Standard. Labels quickly tell employees:

•   The identity of the chemical in the container (along with the name and address and sometimes, phone number of the manufacturer)
•   Why it’s hazardous
•   How to protect against hazards (storage and handling instructions, PPE, and sometimes, emergency instructions)

You need safety policies, but you don’t have to write them. We’ve already written them for you in BLR’s Essential Safety Policies program. Examine it at no cost or risk. Click for details.

The Hazard Communication Standard also requires chemical manufacturers and distributors to provide a material safety data sheet (MSDS) for each hazardous chemical product they sell. And you are required to keep an MSDS for each chemical on file in your workplace, readily available to all employees who have any contact with the substance. Because the MSDS provides more comprehensive and detailed safety and health information than labels, it should always be used in conjunction with labels.

Point out the “signal” words on labels. Signal words are frequently used on labels to quickly inform users how dangerous the chemical is and what the specific safety and health hazards are. For example:
•   “Danger” means that the chemical can cause immediate serious injury or death.
•   “Warning” means that it can cause serious injury or death.
•   “Caution” means that moderate injury is possible.
•   “Flammable” means that the chemical can catch fire easily.
•   “Reactive” means it can burn, explode, or release toxic vapors if it comes in contact with heat, air, water, or other chemicals.
•   “Toxic” means poisonous; the chemical can cause illness or even death.
•   “Target organ toxic” means it can injure specific organs.
•   “Corrosive” means that the chemical can burn or even destroy skin, lungs, or eyes on contact.

Make sure employees understand the meaning of all the signal words on the labels of chemicals used in your workplace.

Get the safety policies you need without the work. They’re in BLR’s Essential Safety Policies program. Try it at no cost and no risk. Click for details.

Some labels are color- and number-coded for extra protection. Color- and number-coded label systems have been developed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and other organizations. These systems use colors to represent the different kinds of hazards. On an NFPA label, for example:
•   Red means a fire hazard.
•   Yellow means an instability hazard.
•   Blue means a health hazard.
•   White indicates special hazards (for example, oxidizer, acid, corrosive, radioactive).

The numbers on an NFPA label show the degree of hazard:
•   0 = minimal hazard
•   1 = slight hazard
•   3 = moderate hazard
•   4 = serious hazard
•   5 = severe hazard

Why It Matters…

•   Misused chemicals can cause fires, explosions, death, and destruction.
•   Labels provide employees with the basic information they need to work safely with chemicals and avoid hazardous exposures.
•   If your employees aren’t routinely consulting labels and MSDSs, the risk of chemical accidents in your facility increases significantly.
•   The only way to be sure employees read labels is to train, monitor, and retrain to keep labels in the forefront of your chemical safety program.