One of the OSHA standards that has been significantly updated in the last few years is commonly known as the Haz Comm standard, or the Right to Know requirements. These regulations can be found in 29 CFR 1910.1200 and they apply to varying degrees to all types of workplaces that use, store or produce hazardous products. The rules were updated in 2012 to include language on how products are labeled and how Safety Data Sheets are produced in order to bring the standard in to conformance with the Globally Harmonized Standards for classification and labeling of chemicals, commonly known as GHS. For as long as these requirements have been around and as much publicity as they have received, this is still one of the more frequently issued OSHA citations, and employers continue to be misinformed on what they need to do to comply.
First, the premise of this set of rules is simple; all employees have a right to know about the hazards posed by the products they are working with (see video from Dr. Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor, at the end of this post). This includes the more obvious hazards, such as working with a product that produces toxic fumes, and the not as obvious hazards such as recognizing that lumber produces a hazard in the form of flammable saw dust when it is cut. Simply put, it is the company’s responsibility to identify these workplace hazards and establish a program for communicating the dangers to all potentially exposed employees so that steps can be taken to keep them safe. This is accomplished through the development of a written plan, inventorying all of the hazardous materials that are used, obtaining hazard information for these products from the manufacturer or importer, and ensuring that information is communicated to all potentially affected employees through facilitated access to the product information, proper labeling of products and containers, and training on how to stay safe.
Having a better understanding of the intent of the Haz Comm standard, understanding how the rules apply, and understanding who is actually required to do what can lead to better compliance, easier maintenance and a safer and more productive workplace. A common complaint or frustration among employers is not understanding who is required to classify the hazards and not knowing what products they are supposed to consider hazardous. Regarding this, it’s important to know that when a company uses consumer products in a manner and quantity that would be similar to a consumer, those products do not need to be included in this program. For example, a construction company can probably focus on the products included in its scope of work, like paint, epoxy, form-release agents, etc. and not worry about the single small spray bottle of glass cleaner that is kept under the bathroom sink. On the other hand, a janitorial service that purchases and stores bulk quantities of that same cleaner and has employees using that product for an entire work shift would need to include that product in its Haz Comm program.
Another consideration for employers is how the product is to be used. Simply put, if the product is not hazardous, it is not required to be included in your Haz Comm program. The rules specifically state that products that are formed into a finished shape that will not be altered by the way you use that product in your business are not required to be included. For example, a reinforcing company may purchase plastic support chairs that it will install to position rebar during concrete placement. The manufacturer may very well provide Safety Data Sheets with the shipment of support chairs that describe the plastic used to manufacture them. In this example, the product manufacturer needed to include this information in their own program, for their own employees, because the manufacturing process including heating the raw material, potentially exposing its employees to hazardous fumes. The reinforcing contractor, however, is receiving a finished product, i.e. the plastic has been formed in to a finished shape, and it will not alter that product in any way. In this case the contractor falls under the exemption in §1910.1200 (b)(6)(v) since that finished product does not pose any hazard to its employees, meaning they are not required to include those Safety Data Sheets for the plastic used to manufacture them in their Haz Comm program.
Understanding what information you need to collect and include in your Haz Comm program is an important first step for any employer. It is also important to understand which entity is responsible for classifying the hazards associated with using a product. In §1910.1200 (d)(1) of the OSHA regulations, it assigns the specific responsibility for classifying the hazards of a product to the manufacturer or importer of that product. A company who purchases that product and uses it in a manner consistent with the manufacturers requirements is permitted to rely on the information provided by the manufacturer. This information is required to be provided in the form of a Safety Data Sheet and proper labeling of the product containers. The 2012 revisions to the OSHA regulations have standardized the format in which this information must be presented (collectively referred to as the GHS changes mentioned earlier), making it easier to teach employees how to find and interpret the information they need to keep them safe.
One mistake that is made by some employers is the use of a generic Haz Comm plan without including company specific information. Purchasing an off the shelf pre-written plan can be a useful way to get your program started. It may include language related to the new standard labeling requirements and information on important topics such as where to find requirements for Personal Protective Equipment in a Safety Data Sheet. What it won’t contain is information specific to your company. §1910.1200 (c)(1)(i) requires a company’s written plan to include an actual list of all hazardous chemicals used by the company to which its employees may be exposed, commonly referred to as the Chemical List. The rules also require the company to collect the Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for each of these products and make them available to its employees.
The format of the Chemical List is simple, but certain specific information must be included. The list must include the product name and an identifier that allows the user to cross reference that back to the SDS so they can obtain more information when needed. The list is simply an inventory; it is not required to list each ingredient in the product or its specific hazards. In order to comply with additional OSHA record keeping requirements, the list should also include the date the product was put into service and the date on which the company stops using the product. It may also be advisable to include location or workplace information on this list as well (for example if a certain product is only used in the shop and not in the field). This additional information is required under §1910.1020(c)(5) which states that records must be kept showing when and where each employee was exposed to any hazardous chemicals. That rule basically defines exposure as working with any chemical that requires a Safety Data Sheet, and states that these exposure records must be kept by an employer for 30 years after the date an employee leaves the company. While exposure information can be kept separately, record keeping can be simplified by simply adding location and in/out service date columns to your Haz Comm Chemical List. Having these service dates on the list can also be helpful when a company is determining which Safety Data Sheets it needs to have on hand at any given time.
Safety Data Sheets (formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets or MSDS’s) are required to be accessible to employees. Again, an employer is only required to have this information available for products which are currently being used, and only for products that are hazardous. There are many ways access to these sheets can be facilitated, including keeping hard copies and/or accessing them electronically. The important requirement is to ensure that the SDS’s are readily available to employees for each product listed as currently in-service on your chemical list.
If people know and understand the hazards of products they work with, they can take the appropriate steps to protect themselves and the people around them. The purpose of a Hazard Communication program is to facilitate that flow of information. In order to be successful, the program must include information on the specific products being used in the workplace in addition to generic information, and must include training that teaches employees what they are working with and what they need to do to stay safe, healthy and productive.