It’s Chemistry: Globally Harmonized System Facilitates Trade

Prior to December 1, 2015, a chemical material handler could approach a tank of a hazardous substance and see as many as three different hazard symbols, depending on the product’s country of origin, transportation mode, and labeling agency. “Is the skull-and-crossbones image the symbol for acute toxicity?” he would think. “Or is it a carcinogenic substance?”

Now, nine separate container and workplace labels, including distinctive pictograms, clearly communicate what substance the worker is handling and its level of hazard. A slightly different set of symbols, found on chemical-transporting vehicles, communicate their corresponding substances’ hazard levels in transit.

The clarification provided by the United States’ recent implementation of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, GHS for short, allows material handlers, transportation workers and corporate entities to identify hazardous substances with ease. These substances include everything from common workplace chemicals like solvents to pharmaceuticals.

GHS Compliance

GHS is a concerted, global effort developed by the United Nations to harmonize all chemical hazard symbols and Safety Data Sheets, formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets. The most significant changes are in the format of SDS documents. Previously, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Hazard Communication Standard MSDS documents were written in different languages, with different formats. Now, the GHS SDS documents mandate a formulaic structure, so each country’s SDS pages appear the same in structure and consistently fulfill the same information requirements.

“These differences in hazard classifications, SDS, and labels impact both protection and trade,” explains the Hazmat Global Harmonization System Updates guide. “In the area of trade, the need to comply with multiple regulations regarding hazard classification and labeling is costly and time-consuming. Some multinational companies have estimated that there are over 100 diverse hazard communication regulations for their products globally. For small and medium size enterprises, regulatory compliance is complex and costly, and it can act as a barrier to international trade in chemicals.”

Most UN member countries have adopted legislation to implement GHS to standardize chemical hazard symbols in various phases, an effort to boost their countries’ regulatory efficiencies, improve safety, and cut down on government costs of labeling enforcement. As of December 1, 2015, all hazardous chemical manufacturers, distributors, and importers in the United States needed to comply with GHS labeling, providing a label that includes a signal word, pictogram, hazard statement, and precautionary statement for each hazard class and category, according to the OSHA HCS Final Rule. Not being in compliance with the OSHA HCS by June 1, 2016, can result in fines, penalties, halting of product shipments, and even recalls—serious barriers to trade for globally minded corporations.

For those companies that achieved full compliance as of December 1, 2015, their efforts almost certainly resulted in cost savings, since they no longer need to comply with multiple labeling systems. Simply put, encouraging other corporations, both domestic and international, to comply with the HCS and GHS regulations is good for trade. Specifically, according to OSHA’s GHS guide, the regulations “facilitate international trade in chemicals whose hazards have been identified on an international basis.”

These chemicals include cleaning products used for industrial applications; plastic pellets formulated for the creation of DVDs, compact discs, and other technology products; and chemical ingredients designed to be mixed with other stabilizers to create beauty emollients and makeup. Increased access to these chemicals on a global scale can strengthen cross-border relations, increase profits for multiple countries, and even improve the overall health of various countries’ citizens.

Benefits of the GHS Program

The GHS program reaches another milestone this summer. June 1, 2016, was the deadline to update alternative workplace labelling and hazard communication programs, and provide additional employee training for newly identified physical or health hazards. Now, the onus is once again on employers to update their programming and ensure their employees have the “right to understand” the hazardous chemicals that can inhabit their workplaces. WSI, one of the largest privately held third-party logistics firms in the United States, updated these guidelines and programming in 2015 to educate both its warehouse-based and office-based employees. A separate program prepares WSI material handlers for new pictogram and labeling expectations. Ultimately, as the GHS pictograms, SDS documents, and labeling become more prevalent in chemical trade around the world, the logistics industry—its employees and its end users—will reap the benefits of increased, streamlined trade.