Back to Basics, Chemicals

Back To Basics: Managing Workplace Chemical Hazards

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine OSHA’s standards for HazCom and managing workplace chemical hazards.

Do you get overwhelmed thinking about all the new rules and enforcement initiatives out of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)?

managing chemical hazards

There have been plenty over the past year: national emphasis programs (NEPs) for heat-related hazards and COVID-19 exposures in correctional facilities, health care, and groceries; new rulemakings for infectious disease and workplace violence standards; and a proposed reinstatement of the electronic filing requirements for injury and illness logs and incident reports.

However, OSHA continues strong enforcement of longstanding regulations for well-established hazards like falls, lockout/tagout, unguarded machinery, and workplace chemicals. The agency’s hazard communication standard (HCS) (29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) §1910.1200) remains one of OSHA’s most frequently cited standards, cited 1,947 times in fiscal year (FY) 2021.

OSHA last revised its HCS on March 26, 2012, but has put out proposed revisions more recently. The agency issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on February 16, 2021, to update the standard to align it with the seventh revision of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), published in 2017. The GHS is an international model regulation, revised every 2 years, for chemical testing, hazard classification, and hazard communication (HazCom) intended to ease trade by establishing a uniform system of chemical labels and safety data sheets (SDSs).

The proposed update to the HCS would contain substantive changes for chemical manufacturers and importers, amending the requirements for the labels and SDSs that manufacturers and importers must provide for hazardous chemicals in commerce.

Updates in the seventh edition of the GHS included:

  • Revised criteria for categorizing flammable gases;
  • Clarifications of health hazard class definitions;
  • Guidance for extending SDS coverage to bulk cargoes transported under provisions of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), regardless of the cargoes’ physical state;
  • Revised chemical precautionary statements; and
  • Changes addressing the labeling of small packages with foldout labels.

Varieties of chemical safety regulation, regulators

Commercial chemicals fall under different federal agencies and regulatory schemes during their shipment, use, and disposal:

  • Hazardous materials (hazmat) transportation is regulated by the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) under the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act of 1975 (HMTA), and U.S. hazmat transport regulations conform to the United Nations’ UN Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods (the “Orange Book”), the international model regulations of standards for containers, packages, and placards used for hazmat transport.
  • OSHA’s HCS regulates chemical safety in the workplace, incorporating many elements of the GHS.
  • Hazardous waste disposal is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); however, OSHA also regulates the health and safety of workers through its Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard.

There also is an industry consensus standard (National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704) for container labels and tank and facility markings to alert firefighters and other first responders to fire, health, and other hazards posed by chemicals. The NFPA “fire diamond” is separated into blue, red, and yellow quadrants to communicate health, flammability, and instability hazards, with a fourth white quadrant carrying special warnings. The white quadrant warns firefighters whether a substance is an asphyxiant gas or an oxidizer or whether it reacts with water.

A chemical container may simultaneously display a DOT placard, an NFPA fire diamond, and an OSHA HCS-compliant label.

OSHA also enforces the process safety management (PSM) standard for highly hazardous chemicals at chemical manufacturing and petroleum refining facilities. The agency has an ongoing NEP for PSM inspection and enforcement and has a planned rulemaking to update the PSM standard to prevent major chemical accidents.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), which investigates chemical accidents, has called for stricter environmental and occupational safety regulations to help prevent incidents involving reactive chemicals. The CSB has 14 open recommendations for OSHA to address catastrophic chemical accidents.

HazCom ‘need to know’

First, you must have a written HazCom program to meet the requirements of the standard. A written HazCom program covers all aspects of your program, like the use of chemical labels and SDSs and employee information and training. Your employees must be trained to understand the hazard and precautionary information contained in labels and SDSs and have access to SDSs for chemicals in the workplace.

Besides knowing how to read and understand chemical labels and SDSs, your employees must be trained in methods of detecting the presence or release of a hazardous chemical in their work areas. They must also understand the hazards of the chemicals found in the workplace, such as asphyxiation or health hazards, combustible dust, and physical hazards like explosiveness, flammability, or reactivity, as well as hazards not otherwise classified.

Chemicals in new workplaces

During the COVID-19 pandemic, hazardous chemicals—cleaners and disinfectants—began appearing in places that hadn’t previously fallen under the HCS. Federal guidance and state regulations recommended or required the use of disinfectants on the EPA’s “List N” of Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Many of the disinfectants on the EPA’s list have health or flammability hazards. Under the HCS, employees must be informed of potential work hazards and trained in safe practices, procedures, and protective measures for those chemical hazards.

Employers not previously subject to HazCom compliance have had to maintain collections of cleaning products’ SDSs and inform employees of potential hazards and train them in safe handling and use of cleaners and disinfectants.

HazCom inspection, enforcement

OSHA updated its inspection procedures in 2015 following the March 26, 2012, revisions to the HCS, harmonizing elements of the standard with the GHS.

Under the HCS, you must have a written HazCom program covering all employees who may be exposed to hazardous substances. OSHA inspectors will cite you for the lack of a written HazCom program. They also may issue citations for missing elements of a HazCom program, like the lack of labels, SDSs, and a training program.

Depending on the findings of an inspection, a compliance safety and health officer (CSHO) may determine:

  • That you or other employers on-site have done nothing to comply with the standard;
  • That your program meets the labeling, SDS, and training requirements of the standard but lacks a compliant written program;
  • That the programs you or other employers on-site have are inadequate or incomplete.

If your facility or worksite is a multiemployer site, all employers are responsible for HazCom compliance. If you have temporary workers at your facility or site, both the host employer and the temporary employment agency are responsible for HazCom.

During a workplace walk-around, agency CSHOs will review the written program, confirming that the program includes:

  • A complete inventory of all hazardous substances,
  • Methods for informing employees of hazards encountered in nonroutine tasks and the hazards of substances in unlabeled pipes, and
  • Methods for informing other employers’ employees at multiemployer worksites and that all employees on-site can and know how to access the written program and SDSs.

Chemical labels

OSHA inspectors may not cite you for inaccurate or inadequate labels and SDSs—manufacturers, importers, and distributors are responsible for the accurate hazard classification of chemicals they provide—but inspectors will cite you for removing or defacing shippers’ labels.

OSHA personnel also will cite you if labels produced in-house are missing information, like the product identifier or hazard description.

Agency CSHOs will determine that containers of hazardous substances are labeled and that the labels are legible and prominently displayed. Labels must be in English but may provide information in other languages. Labels must be attached to the immediate container, although fold-back or pullout labels or tags may be used for small or oddly shaped containers.

Stationary process containers like dip tanks and mixing vessels also must be labeled properly. You will be cited if stationary containers are not labeled or have labels missing required information.

Inspectors also will check the product identifier on the product label against the SDS in your chemical inventory.

SDS compliance

As part of your HazCom program, you must designate an individual to be responsible for obtaining and maintaining SDSs. You must make a good-faith effort to obtain SDSs if a shipment of chemicals does not include them or if the SDSs provided are inaccurate or incomplete. However, you must document e-mails, letters, or phone calls to show your good-faith effort to obtain a replacement for a missing, an inaccurate, or an incomplete SDS.

If SDSs are missing, inaccurate, or incomplete, your area OSHA office may be able to help you obtain replacements.

Agency inspectors will confirm that you have an SDS for each hazardous substance in the workplace. They will compare a representative sample of SDSs against the chemical inventory in your written HazCom program and will check that SDSs are current.

Agency CSHOs will ask how data sheets are maintained, whether in notebooks in work areas, in a pickup truck at a jobsite, or via telefax, as well as procedures for retrieving SDSs electronically. If SDSs are retrieved electronically, inspectors will check for backup systems to be used in the event of failure of the electronic equipment and how employees may obtain SDSs’ substances on-site.

Training compliance

During the inspection, agency personnel will interview managers and employees to evaluate compliance with HCS training requirements. During interviews, CSHOs will determine whether employees understand the hazards of chemicals in their workplace.

Employees need to be aware of hazards they are exposed to and understand how to read container labels; find, read, and understand SDSs; and know what precautions to take when exposed to hazardous substances.

OSHA inspectors also will review documentation of the training elements of the written program. You must inform OSHA personnel of the person responsible for training, how training is conducted, procedures for training new employees and retraining when new hazards are introduced into the workplace, and the training provided for other employers’ employees at a multiemployer worksite.

If you use an in-house labeling system, agency inspectors will check that all employees have received training in the in-house system.

If you have hazardous substances in your facility or at any of your worksites, OSHA will check for a written HazCom program, complete and accurate chemical labels, SDSs, and a training program.