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OSHA Overhauls Chemical Labeling Rule

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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Coming soon to material safety sheets and product labels near you: symbols, standard designs, plain-spoken warnings, and other efforts to make all of that information actually understandable.

The changes are part of a long-awaited overhaul to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 1983 Hazard Communication Standard.


 Images: OSHA

In: Chemical labels under the revised standard feature pictograms that immediately alert workers to potential hazards.

The standard requires suppliers and importers of hazardous chemicals to disclose those hazards and their associated protective measures on product labels and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).

OSHA’s revisions to the standard, released Tuesday (March 20) as a final rule, standardizes labeling within the United States and aligns it with international guidelines.

Employers have until June 2016 to comply.

‘The Right to Understand’

The new standard will classify chemicals according to their health and physical hazards, and establish consistent labels and MSDS for all chemicals made in the United States and imported from abroad.

The rule-making process began during the Bush administration, and the rules were initially proposed in 2009. OSHA recently announced that the final revisions were near.

A new video summarizes how the rule works.

Assistant Labor Secretary Dr. David Michaels said the new labels will be easier to understand and less confusing, especially for low-literacy workers. About 43 million U.S. workers come in contact with hazardous materials on the job.

“OSHA’s 1983 Hazard Communication Standard gave workers the right to know,” said Michaels. “As one participant expressed during our rulemaking process, this update will give them the right to understand as well.”

Preventing Death and Injury

OSHA says the new labeling could prevent more than 40 deaths and about 500 workplace injuries and illnesses each year in the United States, increasing annual productivity by about $475.2 million.

“Now, if you’re a worker in an industry where you are required to respond to a spill, or handle and mix an array of chemicals, all marked in different containers, combined in different mixtures, and subject to different environmental conditions, you won’t be confused by different types and lengths of confusing informational materials,” Michaels said.

“Instead of words, the new labels use easily recognizable pictograms that anyone can use, no matter what language they speak or what country they work in.”

Officials also said the new system would save money and reduce trade barriers for U.S. companies.

“Not only will it save lives and limbs, but it will lead to increased efficiency on part of employers who produce and purchase chemicals,” Michaels said. “And it will level the playing field for employers to compete abroad.”

Patchwork Labeling Laws

The standard requires chemical manufacturers and importers to evaluate the hazards of the chemicals they produce or import, and to disclose those hazards and their associated protective measures.

In addition, all employers who use hazardous chemicals in their workplaces are required to have a hazard communication program that includes container labeling, MSDS and employee training.

Other countries have similar laws, but each has its own scope and requirements, leading to a labeling patchwork for hazardous chemicals that are developed, produced, shipped and used globally. To remedy that, the United Nations adopted the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) in 2003.

The new OSHA standard conforms with GHS.

Mixed Reaction

The American Coatings Association, which represents U.S. paint manufacturers, had no immediate comment on the new rule.

Elizabeth Pullen, president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, said the new labels would improve protection for workers, employers and chemical users.

Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Associated Press that businesses generally support the idea of revising label requirements.

In this case, however, Freedman said OSHA went too far by requiring labels to include hazard information about combustible dust, the AP reported.

“It’s going to create a lot of confusion and uncertainty, which will undermine whatever other value this regulation provides to these companies,” Freedman told the AP.

Michaels said that the agency had not changed its approach to combustible dust in 25 years, but that research and several catastrophic accidents had shown that many still did not understand how to handle it safely.


Until June 2016, chemical manufacturers, importers, distributors and employers may comply with either 29 Code of Federal Regulations 1910.1200 (the final standard), the current standard, or both.

More information for workers, employers and downstream users of hazardous chemicals can be reviewed at OSHA’s Hazard Communication Safety and Health topics page, which includes links, guidance materials, an OSHA fact sheet and Quick Cards.

Old style label

 Old style label
Out: Under the old system, in which manufacturers developed their own labeling, chemical labels sometimes varied widely in the information provided. “Old Style Labels” 1 and 2 are labels for the same chemical.


Tagged categories: American Coatings Association (ACA); Health and safety; Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS); OSHA

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (3/22/2012, 8:38 AM)

A more unified and consistent MSDS system will be useful. The current haphazard method can make it hard to find the information you're looking for.

Comment from James Johnson, (3/22/2012, 12:05 PM)

After over 10,000 new government job killing regulations were issued last year it looks like we are in for more of the can only wonder if they ever considered the overall cost to industry to comply with this new regulation...Anyone care to guess at the cost to change millions and millions of MSDS pages? Probably at a cost of $100 to $200 each? I know...the Administration says regulation is good because it redistributes wealth. Too bad it is not their personal wealth as they seem to be the wealthiest.

Comment from Tim Race, (3/23/2012, 3:21 PM)

There goes JJ elevating my blood pressure again. JJ is fast and loose with the facts here - the Obama administration has written just over 10,000 new regs in its first three years. Drum roll please - the Bush administration issued just over 10,000 new regs during its first three years (a couple hundred more than under Obama). And who says all regulations are job killing? Certainly some are, while others are job neutral and some even result in a net increase in jobs. Also keep in mind that one persons (corporations) expense can be another persons benefit. That's why most regulations follow cost-benefit analyses. Regulations can and do alleviate societal costs. BTW most of those so called 10,000 new regulations reflect the day-to-day business of government - simple things like setting the cost of living adjustment. Before you drink the Kool-Aid check the facts.

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