Making Sense of Hazard Communication
Knowing how to read and understand hazard communication labels is an important part of chemical safety.
Hazardous chemicals are found in almost every single workplace, and it is the employer's responsibility to protect workers from being harmed by those chemicals.
The specific protective measures will depend on the type of chemicals kept on site. Workers may need to use nitrile gloves when handling a chemical product, they may need to don a well-fitted respirator, or they may need to ensure that the chemical doesn't come into contact with water or some other element that could cause a risky chemical reaction.
But there's one safety measure that is essential no matter what type of chemical workers might encounter: knowledge and awareness.
That's what makes OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom) an important step forward in chemical safety. It ensures that all workers have the information they need to stay safe when dealing with hazardous materials.
Understanding OSHA’s HazCom Standard
The HazCom standard provides a single set of criteria for classifying chemicals based on their health and physical hazards. These hazards are communicated to workers through standardized container labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS) that provide more detailed information. This streamlines safety and training programs, since chemical labels will follow the same principles across all companies.
Under HazCom, chemical labels are designed to:
- Ensure proper storage of hazardous chemicals
- Identify chemical hazards through pictograms
- Indicate the appropriate PPE, safety measures, and first aid response for a particular chemical
OSHA has made their position clear: employers using hazardous chemicals must ensure that the work facilities have the most recently updated safety data sheets available to workers. They also require employers to prepare and implement a written hazard communication plan, which helps ensure a coordinated approach to complying with this standard.
Implementing a Hazard Communication Program
To be fully compliant with OSHA’s regulations, employers must create and implement a written hazard communication program. They recommend following the following steps.
1. Learn the Standard and Identify Key Staff
Take the time to fully understand what the HazCom standard requires. Identify the staff members in your organization who are responsible for upholding elements of it (such as managers, supervisors, and trainers).
2. Prepare a Written HazCom Program
The written program must detail how hazard communication will be addressed at each worksite. It should include:
- An inventory of all hazardous chemicals kept on site
- Labeling procedures
- Procedures for maintaining Safety Data Sheets
- Procedures for providing employees with relevant information
3. Ensure All Chemical Containers Are Labeled
While chemical manufacturers, distributors, and importers are required to label all shipped containers, it's still important to cross-check your inventory to ensure every chemical is correctly labeled. If labeling is done in-house, double check that you are following the correct format.
Labels must include:
- Product identifier
- Signal word
- Hazard statements
- Precautionary statement
- Contact information for the manufacturer, distributor, or importer
4. Make Safety Data Sheets Accessible
Every hazardous chemical in the workplace must have an accompanying SDS that is accessible to employees. Suppliers should send these Safety Data Sheets with any chemical product they sell to your organization, but if you don’t receive one you can request a copy from them.
If you use an electronic SDS system, note that OSHA requires you to also keep hard copies in case of a power failure or an emergency.
5. Inform and Train Employees
All employees must be trained on the hazardous chemicals in their work area before beginning their tasks (we'll return to this subject below).
6. Evaluate and Re-Assess the Program
Every hazardous communication program should be evaluated on a regular basis to ensure that it remains current and relevant. When conducting an assessment, take particular note of changes, such as new chemicals and hazards.
(Learn about The Top 4 Pathways for Chemical Exposure)
The Importance of Employee Training
We cannot overstate the importance of providing adequate training when it comes to hazard communication. You must ensure your employees receive comprehensive training and be able to understand and act on the information found on chemical labels and in Safety Data Sheets.
To this end, OSHA requires that HazCom training include a number of specific topics:
- How to detect the presence or release of hazardous chemicals in the work area
- Measures employees can take to protect themselves from these hazards
- Details of the employer’s hazard communication program, including:
- Explanation of the labels on shipped containers
- The workplace labeling system
- Safety data sheets
- How to obtain and use the appropriate hazard information
Training on specific shipped container hazard labels should include a complete overview of the six standard elements on the label:
- Product Identifier: how the hazardous chemical is identified
- Signal Word: indicates the severity of the hazard
- Pictograms: indicate the health, physical, and environmental hazards
- Hazard Statement(s): describes the nature and degree of the hazard(s)
- Precautionary Statement(s): explain measures that should be taken to prevent ill effects from exposure to chemical or improper storage and handling
- Name, Address, and Phone Number of the chemical manufacturer, distributor, or importer
Employees must receive the training when they are initially assigned to work with a hazardous chemical. Additional training must be completed whenever a new health and safety hazard is introduced to the work area. Refresher training is also a good idea, and employers may wish to consider providing this on an annual basis.
Year after year, the Hazard Communication Standard is included in OSHA’s top 10 safety violations across all industries. Not only is this costly in a financial sense, but it also has an impact on employee safety and morale.
Implementing a hazard communication program is the best way to prevent injuries and illnesses resulting from chemical hazards. And it’s not difficult to do. By following the steps outlined in this article, you'll be empowering your workers to take chemical safety into their own hands.