This post was contributed by Joseph S. Sileo, Esq. an attorney in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC’s Labor and Employment Practice Group in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a new Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) that is designed to enhance employee health and safety by aligning the classification and labeling of chemicals in the United States with international standards (as established by the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS)). As explained in more detail below, the first phase of compliance requires employers to provide training to employees, by December 1, 2013, with respect to the new HCS label elements and Safety Data Sheet formats. The new HCS and related training requirement apply to all private sector employers, regardless of size or industry, with any hazardous chemicals in their workplaces.

The new HCS requirements address the following issues:

  • Hazard Classification- Under the new standard, chemical manufacturers and importers must follow a unified standard procedure, and use specific established criteria, for classifying health and physical hazards of chemicals.
  • Chemical Labels- The new standard requires more detailed labels, and specifically sets forth what information must be included for each identified hazard class and category. In addition, labels must convey the required information in an employee-friendly manner, by use of pictograms, signal words, hazard statements, and precautionary statements.
  • Safety Data Sheets- Under the new standard, the current Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) will be replaced by the new Safety Data Sheet (SDS), which must be issued and maintained in a specific 16-section format.
  • Information and Training- To ensure that employee understand the new label elements and SDS format, employers must train workers with respect to those issues.

The new HCS requirements will be phased in over a period of time, as follows:

  1. December 1, 2013- Employers must, by this date, train employees on the new label elements and SDS format.
  2. June 1, 2015- full compliance with the new HCS (including use of the new labels and SDS format) is required, except that chemical distributors have until December 1, 2015 before they must stop shipping containers with non-GHS labels.
  3. June 1, 2016- Employers must update workplace labeling and hazard communication programs as necessary, and provide employee training with respect to any new physical or health hazards identified by a hazard classification.

Between now and the June 1, 2015 full compliance deadline (the "transition period"), employers have the option to comply with either the new or old HCS, or both. As a practical matter, this means that an employer can continue to use the outgoing MSDS form, elect to use the new SDS form, or do both, during the transition period.

As an aside, some have questioned the wisdom of requiring employers to provide employee training as referenced above by December 1 of this year when actual use of the new labels and SDS format is not required until 2015. OSHA has explained its rationale by noting that providing such training now will benefit employees, and is necessary, because GHS-compliant labels and SDSs are already present to a certain extent in the U.S. workplace (due to voluntary use by some manufacturers), and such trend is expected to continue and increase during the transition period.

Our Labor & Employment Practice Group can assist you with preparing for and conducting the training required by the new HCS. Please feel free to contact any member of our Group for assistance and any questions you may have.