The GHS and You – 5 Big Changes

The GHS and You – 5 Big Changes

4 min read

If your workplace handles chemicals, particularly as the initial producer or as a distributor to clients, it’s time to familiarize yourself with the global harmonization system (GHS) of classification and labeling chemicals, or the GHS, for short.

What is the GHS?

The GHS, first proposed to the United Nations in 1992, is an attempt at bringing some uniformity to the chemical labeling procedures of the developed world. Member nations, based upon their own time-frames, signed on to promise to convert to the GHS method of labeling chemical substances by a certain date. The idea was and still remains to make international business and production easier by having chemical labeling procedures that wouldn’t slow down import and export, and would be easy for everyone involved to understand. This also greatly reduces transport costs as materials aren’t having to be re-labeled or re-inspected as they cross borders. Last, but certainly not least, the GHS protects workers by ensuring the risks of handling any given material are clearly stated in an easy to understand manner from the beginning.

According the UN’s publishing of a GHS guide, the following are succinct statements of the GHS’ most important goals:

Defining health, physical and environmental hazards of chemicals:

  • Creating classification processes that use available data on chemicals for comparison with the defined hazard criteria; and
  • Communicating hazard information, as well as protective measures, on labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS).

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What does this mean for me?

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In the United States, the time-frame for adoption is staggered over several stages. On March 2012, the final rule for how workplaces should adopt their policies was published, and employees were required to be trained on these new procedures by December 1, 2013. Interestingly enough, the adoption of the standard by product manufacturers is not required until June 1, 2015, with distributors having even longer to change over their systems (December 1, 2015).

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What’s the difference between current/old systems and the new GHS?

In short, five primary areas are experiencing changes: New safety data sheets are now required, label rating systems have been changed, new “danger” and “warning” signal words, along with other new classifications and risk tiers for chemicals, communication/distribution systems, and employee training. Let’s go through and take a look at what each of those really means.

New Safety Data Sheets: Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS’) are now simply Safety Data Sheets (SDS’). While the sheets have lost a letter in their acronym, they’ve gained several more fields to fill out in order to ensure effective communication of all aspects of a material. The new sections are as follows:

  1. Identification: Basic information about the chemical name and contact details for the distributor/manufacturer.
  2. Hazardous Identification: What kind of hazardous material are we working with, what are the associated hazards that workers and handlers need to look out for?
  3. Composition: What ingredients are involved in making the chemical compound being distributed?
  4. First Aid Measures: What do workers need to do if an employee is exposed to the substances. What about different kinds of exposures (direct contact, inhalation, ingestion, etc.)?
  5. Fire-Fighting Measures: Disclose if a material is flammable and how handlers can prevent, extinguish, and contain any fires associated with the product.
  6. Accidental Release Measures: In the event of a spill, even if employees are not directly harmed, what actions need to be taken to contain the material and prevent property, environmental damage, etc.
  7. Handling and Storage: How should the materials be transported and stored? Also indicate any other substances or conditions with which the material should not be stored.
  8. Exposure Controls / PPE: Indicate what kind of protective equipment workers need to wear when handling the materials.
  9. Physical and Chemical Properties: There used to be eight strictly required fields on an MSDS, with the ninth field being technically optional; all fields are now expected to be filled out under the GHS. This field is for technical properties of the chemical make up of a substance.
  10. Stability / Reactivity: Radioactive stability and reactivity are stated here.
  11. Toxicological Information: Toxicity and type.
  12. Ecological Information: Risks for environmental harm are disclosed here.
  13. Disposal: Specifications for safe, clean disposal of the chemical should be outlined in this section.
  14. Transport Information: Any precautions to be taken specifically for the further transport of a material.
  15. Regulatory Information: Any additional information required for this specific type of material.
  16. Other Information: Miscellaneous info; to be decided by you as the shipper/manufacturer/distributor.


Classifications: The second primary change of the new GHS is that the ratings system has (for some reason) been inverted. U.S.-based workers will be used to a low rating (one) being the best categorization, with four being the worst, now exactly the opposite is true: One is the worst/high risk, four is the best. Try to avoid initial confusion by addressing this explicitly in your training.

Labels: Many labels have also changed with the new system, starting with the use of two main “signal words” in the GHS language. These are “Warning” and “Danger,” and are the only two things used to denote the level of hazard on container labels and SDS’. New hazard symbols for denoting certain types of risks, like flammability, pressurized chemicals, etc. are also in existence. This are simple, universalized illustrations and were likely designed with quick, wordless, cross-language hazard communication in mind.

Communication: The entire premise of the GHS is better communication. All of the actions and inputs that have gone into the changes that make up the system help to achieve this end. New procedures for cross-nation communication are included in the GHS literature (many companies may not be affected by this if not directly dealing internationally).

Training: Training of employees is probably the biggest employer-level burden posed by the GHS. Training needs to completely change and add on to the way in which employees fill out safety data sheets and the labeling of their chemical shipments using a GHS industrial label maker (like this one). While the U.S. deadline for re-training employees on the new system has passed, ensure you are constantly updating your training to best reflect the new landscape as you see it.

For more reading, the United Nations’ “Purple Book,” a guide to the new GHS, can be found at the link near the beginning of this article. The full GHS text can also be accessed from the same page. As we approach the 2015 deadlines over the next year and a half or so, make your accommodations early to stay ahead of the game. Expect some rough patches at first, but a more “harmonious system” in the long run. Best of luck!

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