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" A new, uniform method for labeling, the Globally Harmonized System (GHS), aims to establish a cohesive international umbrella; agencies across the world are currently adopting it in stages. "

MSDS, NFPA, ANSI, GHS, DOT: Making sense of HAZMAT alphabet soup

If the acronyms involved with the labeling of hazardous material scare you more than HAZMAT health risks, you're not alone.

For years the world of labeling hazardous materials was a bit like the Wild West, with various regulatory agencies establishing their own rules and regulations, which sometimes conflict and sometimes overlap.

This has made it difficult – and potentially dangerous – for anyone involved with shipping, transporting or receiving these materials.

A new, uniform method for labeling, the Globally Harmonized System (GHS), aims to establish a cohesive international umbrella; agencies across the world are currently adopting it in stages. However, this temporarily adds to the confusion until it is fully adopted.

Since industries’ shift to the GHS has been gradual, you may need a general understanding of all the hazardous material warning systems. A brief summary is as follows:

Material Safety Data Sheets – also called "Safety Data Sheets" (SDS) - are documents required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's "Hazard Communication Standard." Manufacturers, distributors and importers of any sort of chemical – including workplace and consumer products - are required to provide detailed information about the nature of a chemical, including its physical or chemical properties and any health, safety, fire or environmental hazards it presents and the precautions that are needed.

This lengthy document also provides information on how to work safely with a material, and what to do if an accident occurs.

While specific information must be included on a SDS, there hasn't been a standard format. As of June 1, 2015, however, SDSs must follow a specified 16-section format, in alignment with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (see "GHS" below).

The labeling system from the American National Standards Institute functions as a short, sticker-form version of SDSs. "ANSI Z129.1" requires the packaging of hazardous materials to be labeled with:

  • The name of the chemical

  • A "signal word," such as "Warning" or "Danger"

  • The name of the key danger, such as "flammable" or "vapor harmful"

  • "Statements of precautions" for avoiding the hazard (such as "Do not breathe vapor or mist")

Critics point out that using a single term for the danger doesn't suffice for chemicals with multiple hazards, and the system doesn't point out if a material could react strongly with another.

The diamond-shaped label developed by the National Fire Protection Association uses four quadrants and a 0-4 numbering system to identify the dangers of a hazardous material, including flammability, corrosion and reactivity/explosiveness. The blue box represents the chemical's "emergency health" hazard, the red box represents the fire hazard and the yellow box represents the reactivity hazard. The bottom box contains a symbol that indicates if the material reacts with water, is radioactive or is a biohazard.

Because the symbol was developed primarily for emergency response personnel, its shortcoming is that it does not address hazards of other work environments.

Most of us are familiar with the Department of Transportation's labeling system, whether we realize it or not. These are the diamond-shaped signs you've likely seen on commercial trucks. They often have a flame or skull-and-crossbones, indicating the presence of flammable, corrosive or poisonous materials. While the signs readily communicate a material's primary hazard, they fail to identify any secondary dangers.

The Globally Harmonized System, which is being transitioned into the regulations in the U.S., Canada and all member states of the U.N., aims to establish a uniform communication system and set of criteria for defining the health, physical and environmental hazards of chemicals in the workplace, transportation, consumer and pesticide sectors.

All labels will be required to have pictograms, a signal word, hazard and precautionary statements, the product identifier and supplier identification.

A sample revised HCS label can be found on the OSHA website.

Hazardous Material LabelsManufacturers around the world are transitioning to a shared system of labeling, the GHS, which feature universally recognizable pictograms, among other safety features.
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