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What You Need to Know About the Globally Harmonized System on Hazardous Chemicals

By Sean Flavin January 18th, 2021

For better or worse, chemicals are a major component of everyday life — essential in producing the food we eat, fueling the machines we use, and manufacturing the medications we take. Globally, the chemical industry is a $1.7 trillion per year enterprise, with $450 billion of that production coming from the United States.

Despite the ubiquity of chemical products, governments around the world used to rely on disparate guidelines to govern how companies produced, distributed, and handled chemicals. This decentralized approach created a host of problems, including inconsistent labels, incongruous classifications, and unclear safety procedures.

To remedy this situation, the United Nations adopted the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) in 2003. The new system established standard classifications for health, physical, and environmental hazards related to chemicals, and it specified requirements for the labels and data sheets associated with hazardous chemicals.

Almost every major country in the world has adopted the GHS in the past couple of decades including the United States. Since 2016, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has required all U.S. companies that use any hazardous chemicals in the workplace to comply with GHS guidelines.

Since pretty much every company in the country uses chemicals in one way or another (even cleaning solutions typically fall into this category), understanding GHS guidelines is crucial for a safety manager and other organizational leaders. To help companies get a firm grasp of the system, we invited Cathi Marx — Vice President of Risk Management and Safety Services at Aspen Risk Management Group — to join our weekly Risk Control Webinar series.

Here’s a summary of her presentation, broken down into seven questions about GHS that employers and employees need to know.

What Does the Globally Harmonized System Do?

The GHS is, by necessity, a complex and involved series of documents and annexes (to give you an idea, even OSHA’s guide on GHS is 90 pages long). In other words, GHS does a lot — too much to cover here — but at a basic level, the system:

  • Evaluates the hazards of all chemicals imported into, produced, or used in workplaces.
  • Provides safe handling instructions to prevent or minimize harmful exposure to chemicals.
  • Delivers a standardized system for employers to follow.

Why is the Globally Harmonized System Necessary?

Companies use a variety of chemicals every day. When not handled properly, any one of these chemicals can seriously increase risk in the workplace.

At the individual level, chemicals can cause serious health effects — from burns and rashes to organ damage to serious illnesses like cancer. At a macro level, hazardous chemicals can wreak havoc when unleashed in an environment — poisoning drinking water, disseminating crops, and infecting human and animal populations.

Years of chemical incidents and long-term health effects caused by unstandardized practices necessitated a system like the GHS to ensure that the companies that produce, distribute, and handle chemicals do so responsibly.

How Does the Globally Harmonized System Classify Hazards?

A key part of the GHS is providing a standard to classify the hazards presented by different chemicals. The GHS requires chemical manufacturers to determine if a chemical is hazardous by definition and, if so, identify it under one of two standard classifications:

Health Hazards

According to Marx, this classification occurs when a chemical produces an acute or chronic health effect on exposed employees.

  • Acute health effects: Employees feel the impact right away after an intense, brief encounter with a chemical (e.g., carbon monoxide poisoning).
  • Chronic health effects: Employees feel the effects after long-term exposure to a chemical that doesn’t necessarily cause immediate or obvious harm (e.g., lung cancer from cigarette smoking).

Physical Hazards

According to Marx, physical hazards are exhibited by certain chemicals because of their physical properties (e.g., flammability). These chemicals fall into the following classes:

  • Flammable liquids or solids
  • Combustible liquids
  • Compressed gases
  • Explosives

How is Globally Harmonized System Information Relayed to Employees?

Employers are required to provide information to employees through:

  • Written hazard communication program
  • Labels and warnings
  • Safety Data Sheets (SDS)
  • Information and training

In the next questions, we’ll take a closer look at two of these methods (SDS and labels), and how they facilitate employee understanding.

What is the Safety Data Sheet?

The SDS is written or printed material that describes the hazards, treatments, and other details of each chemical used in a workplace. Prior to the GHS, different countries and governing bodies had various methods for creating similar data sheets, which did little to enhance understanding. The GHS standardized that process by specifying 16 sections that each SDS needs to have:

  • Identification
  • Hazard identification
  • Ingredients
  • First-aid measures
  • Fire-fighting measures
  • Accidental release measures
  • Handling and storage
  • Exposure controls and personal protection
  • Physical and chemical properties
  • Stability and reactivity
  • Toxicological information
  • Ecological information
  • Disposal considerations
  • Transport information
  • Regulatory information
  • Other information

While companies can store these online, Marx recommends keeping physical copies on hand.

“Think about it: What is the purpose of these SDS?” asked Marx. “Sure, it’s to train our employees. But emergency responders may need them too. The idea being that if, God forbid, an employee gets doused with a chemical, or ingests a chemical, or if a chemical explodes, we can put the SDS on their chest so that emergency responders know how to treat them.”

What are the Labeling Requirements?

The GHS provides requirements for shipping labels and internal labels. Both types of labels have to follow requirements 1-5 below (No. 6 is not required for internal labels):

  1. Product identifier
  2. Signal word (danger or warning)
  3. Hazard statements
  4. Pictograms
  5. Precautionary statements
  6. Name, address, and phone number of the responsible party manufacturer

A vital component of the label is the pictograms, which use both written and visual cues to describe the hazards associated with the chemical.

What are the Pictograms on the Labels?

As a part of the GHS, OSHA outlines eight pictograms with warnings that manufacturers need to place on chemicals when applicable. (In the GHS, there is also a ninth pictogram dealing with the environment that doesn’t fall under OSHA’s jurisdiction.) Each pictogram needs to be set on a white background with a red frame to increase comprehensibility.

Globally Harmonized System on Hazardous Chemicals-Pictogram Image-v2

As mentioned above, the GHS is too complex and involved to cover here fully. If you’re interested in learning more about the system, we encourage you to check out the full document on the United Nations website.

About the Webinar

This presentation was part of CRI’s Risk Control Webinar Series — weekly installments of webinars to educate the group captive members we work with on topics like workplace safety, organizational leadership, and company performance. The thoughts and opinions expressed in these webinars are those of the presenters and do not necessarily reflect CRI’s positions on any of the above topics.


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