Chemical Safety

Understanding all the risks associated with chemicals in a workplace can be overwhelming.

With over 900,000 chemicals that could show up in a workplace, chemical safety and management is one of the most complex challenges employers and employees face at work. To better protect workers from the hazards associated with chemicals, OSHA published its Hazard Communication Standard. According to this standard, employees have a right to understand what chemicals are present in their work areas and how hazardous chemicals can impact their health and safety—let’s take a look into some of the most important elements of the Hazard Communication Standard that employees should be aware of. 

Safety Data Sheets 

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard is designed to protect employees from hazardous chemicals used or stored in the work setting. This standard, also referred to as the “Right to Know” or “Right to Understand” standard, dictates that employers must provide information to any employee who may have the potential of being exposed to a hazardous chemical “under normal condition of use or in a foreseeable emergency.”  

Employers need to ensure that employees understand how they can learn about the chemicals they work with or may become exposed to. The best way to do this, as the standard regulates, is through a safety data sheet, or SDS. SDSs contain everything an employee may need to know for a specific chemical. 

It is up to the employer to identify and provide SDSs for each chemical located in a facility as well as place these SDSs in an easily located area. Generally, manufacturers and importers of chemicals provide the information for the 16-section SDS. These sections of information include: 

  1. Identification 
  2. Hazard(s) Identification 
  3. Composition/Information on Ingredients 
  4. First-Aid Measures 
  5. Fire-Fighting Measures 
  6. Accidental Release Measures 
  7. Handling and Storage 
  8. Exposure Controls/Personal Protection 
  9. Physical and Chemical Properties 
  10. Stability and Reactivity  
  11. Toxicological Information 
  12. Ecological Information  
  13. Disposal Considerations  
  14. Transport Information  
  15. Regulatory Information  
  16. Other Information 

Employers must ensure that all employees know where to locate SDSs and how to read and understand the information included in them. SDSs must also be provided in the primary language of those who are working with hazardous chemicals.  


When the Hazard Communication Standard was updated to align more with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals in 2012, OSHA updated the way that employers need to label chemicals. The revised standard requires that information about chemical hazards be conveyed on labels using quick visual notations to alert the user, providing immediate recognition of the hazards. Labels should have many elements present, including: 

Contact information. Name, address, and telephone number of the manufacturer, importer or other responsible part 

Product identifier. The product identifier is how the hazardous chemical is identified. This can be (but is not limited to) the chemical name, code number or batch number. The manufacturer, importer or distributor can decide on the appropriate product identifier, but it must be the same as section 1 of the SDS. 

Signal words. These are used to indicate the relative level of severity of the hazard and alert the reader to a potential hazard on the label. There are only two words used as signal words, “Danger” and “Warning.” For hazards that are more severe in nature, “Danger” should be used, while “Warning” is used for less severe hazards. 

Hazard statements. These will describe the nature of the hazards of a chemical, including the degree of the hazard. For example: “Causes damage to kidneys through prolonged or repeated exposure when absorbed through the skin.” 

Precautionary statements. Precautionary statements describe recommended measures that should be taken to minimize or prevent adverse effects resulting from exposure. There are four types of precautionary statements: prevention (to minimize exposure); response (in case of accidental spillage or exposure emergency response, and first-aid); storage; and disposal. 

Pictograms. Pictograms are graphic symbols used to communicate specific information about the hazards of a chemical. These required pictograms consist of a red square frame set at a point with a black hazard symbol on a white background, sufficiently wide to be clearly visible. There are a total of nine pictograms, eight of which are enforced by OSHA. 


According to the standard, employers are required to train workers on the label elements and safety data sheets format to facilitate recognition and understanding. This training must be done at the time of their initial assignment (prior to being exposed to a chemical) and whenever a new chemical hazard that they have not previously been training about is introduced to the work area. This training must include 

  • Methods and observations that may be used to detect the presence or release of a chemical hazard. 
  • The hazards associated with the chemicals in the work area. 
  • How employees can protect themselves from exposure. 
  • The details of the hazard communication program, including an explanation of the labels received on shipped containers, SDS, and how employees can obtain and use appropriate hazard information.  

Key Takeaways  

  • Employees have a right to understand hazards in their work area. 
  • Employers must ensure employee recognition and understanding of chemical hazards. 
  • Training must be conducted each time a new hazard is introduced. 


SDSs must be provided in the primary language of those who are working with hazardous chemicals. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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