Why Do We Need GHS? Is the Hazard Communication Standard Obsolete?

Why do we need the GHS? GHS is a Globally Harmonized System of classification and labeling of chemicals, yet we already have OSHA’s hazard communication standard (HCS), so why is GHS necessary?

In a BLR webinar titled "The Hazard Communication Standard: Significant Changes are Finally Here – Are You Ready for GHS?," Brad Harbaugh outlined answers to these questions and more, to help employers understand GHS and how it will affect existing hazard communication programs.

Why Do We Need GHS?

Why do we need any new GHS anyway? What’s the problem with the HCS as it is? Harbaugh outlined several reasons why the GHS is necessary:

  • "Hazard communication regulations vary widely internationally."
  • "Classifications that address various end users vary within countries." For example, here in the US we have OSHA, EPA, and DOT and each have jurisdiction over certain parts of chemical hazard management.
  • "Multiple labels and safety data sheets are often required for the same product," especially for shipments to different countries. Maintaining multiple schemes for creating labels and MSDSs is costly and time-consuming.
  • Users often see different label warnings or MSDSs for the same product, which can create confusion – which may actually diminish safety.

This is where GHS comes in. As a common and coherent global approach for definitions and hazard classifications, GHS will provide better and more consistent communication on labels and safety data sheets. This makes employees safer and helps everyone better understand the information they’re presented in relation to chemicals in the workplace.

It will also provide better trade opportunities because the need to comply with multiple regulations regarding hazard classification and labeling is costly and time-consuming; small to medium businesses are effectively precluded from international chemicals trade due to the burden of regulatory compliance. GHS makes this compliance more streamlined, which should open the door to additional international trade.

GHS Basics

GHS is not a regulation, a standard or a mandate. Harbaugh explained in the webinar that "it’s not an international law. There’s no international body that’s going to be enforcing GHS here in the United States. Instead, GHS is . . . a collection of best practices." It is an approach that contains criteria, provisions and explanatory text to be used as guidance for countries as they align their regulations with the GHS. "Each country that adopts GHS can adopt just those pieces that it wants to," Harbaugh continued. In other words, each country or regulatory authority is enabled to select those parts of the GHS that apply to their regulations and implement the GHS in a way that’s most consistent with their own specific requirements.

In practical terms, what that means for the HCS is that the overall framework for the regulation will remain the same. Those provisions not affected by the GHS will remain the same. For example, the GHS does not include training. The HCS does and will continue to do so. Bottom line: the GHS will enhance the HCS in terms of comprehensiveness, not reduce or take away current coverage.

For more information on GHS and the upcoming changes to the hazard communication standard, order the webinar recording. To register for a future webinar, visit

Brad Harbaugh is editor of the Environmental Health and Safety blog for MSDSonline – a leading provider of on-demand compliance solutions for managing chemicals, material safety data sheets (MSDSs), OSHA Recordkeeping, and other critical EH&S tasks. In addition to researching and reporting on current EH&S issues, Brad is the creator of MSDSonline’s popular GHS Answer Center and GHS Webinar series.


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