Maintaining HazCom Compliance and Preparing for Future Changes 

Maintaining HazCom Compliance and Preparing for Future Changes 

OSHA is looking to make additional changes to the HazCom Standard to better protect employees.

Staying on top of expanding hazard communication requirements can be overwhelming. There have been numerous changes made to the Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom) since it was first adopted by OSHA for U.S. workplaces nearly 40 years ago. Most notable was the alignment with the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), which aimed at creating a standardized global system through which chemical hazards are identified and communicated to all who are potentially exposed.

Now, OSHA is looking to make additional changes to the HazCom Standard to better protect employees in the workplace with updates to align it with GHS Revision 7. While the scope of the changes may not be as wide as OSHA's first alignment with GHS, the impact will be significant, and will require attention and action. The first step is to ensure that your present day HazCom program is compliant with current standards to more easily address the changes to come. Following is a deeper look into the steps you can take to build and prepare that program now.

Build Your HazCom Dream Team

This isn’t typically listed as the first step in a HazCom management plan, which is maybe why so many plans often fail (HazCom violations are number two on OSHA’s list of Top 10 violations in the U.S.). Managing HazCom is a foundational task that requires collaboration with people who know what chemicals are presently at your facility and when new chemicals arrive. It requires a team and some of the key players you need include:

Purchasing Managers. Good communication with your Purchasing Department is really your first line of defense in the HazCom management game. Work with them to establish a clear procurement policy that ensures planned orders for new chemicals go through a comprehensive review and approval process first.

Maintenance Supervisor/Facilities Manager. These individuals have a good sense of what chemicals are used and stored throughout the facility since they’re familiar with all work areas and equipment. They typically know what chemicals are used in maintenance activities, which is essential since these types of chemicals often fly under the radar.

Department Supervisors. This group plays a critical role in HazCom management since they’re dialed-in to plans to bring new chemicals into the facility and know all the ways chemicals are being used and stored. They’re also more likely to know when employees buy chemicals over the counter from industrial supply stores, a situation that often causes chemical products to “sneak in” without formal review or approval.

Employee Safety Team. No one is better positioned to understand everyday issues involving chemical safety than your workers, because no one is as familiar with all aspects of their jobs as they are. Deputize your team to perform chemical inspections, to model good HazCom awareness, and to bring you information you’ll need to keep your chemical inventory and management program accurate and up to date.

Upper Management. When executives demonstrate active knowledge of your HazCom practices, they communicate to everyone that HazCom matters. Of course, it can be difficult to get a significant commitment from this group, and you’ll need to respect their time. But at least some input from executives in developing plans encourage them to take more ownership of the program and advocate for its success.

Understand Your Inventory

You can’t manage HazCom if you don’t know what chemicals you have in the workplace. However, knowing what you have isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Many facilities have at least some “surprise” chemicals lurking around which can be dangerous and have regulatory considerations.

This is where a good relationship with Purchasing and a sound procurement policy will head off many potential problems. Knowing what you have coming in ahead of time allows you to identify hazards, proper handling and storage considerations before the chemicals ever cross your threshold and be able to plan accordingly.

Of course, it’s not just knowing what chemicals you have that matters—it’s also understanding their specific hazards and regulatory considerations required to properly manage the chemicals. Take methylene chloride, which exposure evidence has linked with increased cancer risks and adverse effects to organs such as the heart and liver. Facility managers rarely think they have methylene chloride in their inventory since there’s nothing about the name of the chemical product that provides an obvious clue, and yet it’s a frequent ingredient found in aerosol cans of degreasing sprays. Because they don’t know they have it, they’re unable to demonstrate that they are compliant with OSHA’s methylene chloride standard, which requires employers to determine whether any employee exposures exceed the action level (AL) of 12.5 parts per million (ppm), measured as a time-weighted average (TWA) in the air, and to take various protective measures when employees exposures exceed the AL. It should be noted that the EPA has also recently proposed taking its own separate measures regarding methylene chloride, so the regulatory burden of having this chemical in your workplace may get even bigger.

This is just one example that demonstrates the critical importance of understanding what chemicals you have. To help you anticipate and avoid these risks, consider a chemical management software solution that features ingredient indexing capabilities. This will provide you with the visibility needed to manage your chemical inventory properly and meet regulatory requirements triggered by ingredients that may be present in the products you use in the workplace.

Harmonize Your HazCom Program

Once you have a good understanding of the chemicals in your inventory, you can harmonize your management of that inventory and its chemical hazards. This is where you ensure you have a safety data sheet (SDS) for every chemical in your inventory and request any missing documents or outdated versions from your chemical suppliers.

You shouldn’t be using a single SDS for a chemical product to stand in for individual SDSs from every manufacturer who supplies it to you. OSHA addressed this issue in a 2015 directive, which stated “if the employer is maintaining one SDS for a particular chemical but uses that chemical from a different manufacturer or importer without obtaining/maintaining the SDS from the new manufacturer or importer, the employer is not compliant.” While this might seem like a burden at first, it’s the only way to really be sure you have accurate hazard information for all of your chemicals. If you’ve ever dealt with strong acids like sulfuric acid, you know that there’s a big difference between a concentrated or highly diluted solution, and it can make the difference between skin irritation and a severe burn causing permanent tissue damage. The only way to remove ambiguity and ensure you’re dealing with the same chemical at the same concentration with the same hazards, is to have an SDS from every supplier who sends you the chemical.

The product identifier is key to effective HazCom management. Make sure it matches each chemical across your chemical inventory list, your SDS library, the shipped container labels and any secondary container (or workplace) labels. This helps avoid confusing scenarios when the use of a nickname like “Solvent A” is used for a chemical on secondary container labels in lieu of the product identifier listed on the shipped container label and SDS. This creates ambiguity in the minds of employees seeking the SDS for that chemical, and ambiguity is one of the last things you want when it comes to chemical safety.

Make a Plan… and Then Update It

There’s a reason why a written HazCom Plan isn’t the first step on this list. It’s hard to write a halfway decent plan unless you’ve already built a good management team, familiarized yourself with your chemical inventory and taken steps to harmonize your program.

Your HazCom Plan is your playbook and needs to reflect the specific chemical hazards and HazCom management policies at your facility. One common pitfall with HazCom compliance is having a written plan that is not sufficiently site-specific. All too often, managers simply download a HazCom Plan template, fill in a few blanks and wind up with something that resembles a completed plan—but is far from it. In actuality, it takes time to develop a plan that is adequately detailed and tailored to your workplace to comply with OSHA’s requirements. That doesn’t mean that your plan has to be perfect at first; in the beginning, it’s okay just go through the exercise of trying to accurately describe your HazCom management practices, get it all down in a draft document, and then refine it later.

The fact is, your written HazCom Plan will always be a work in progress in some sense, because you’ll need to continue to update it each time you make a major change to your program, like introducing a new kind of hazard (i.e., bringing a chemical into your workplace for the first time) or changing details about your workplace labeling system. You’re more likely to be compliant in the long run if you realize that you’re going to need to revisit and revise your Plan. Many people spend the effort to write a detailed HazCom Plan only to end up with a static document that just gathers dust and doesn’t change as their HazCom management practices change – something that OSHA will be checking if they visit your workplace.

Fix Your SDS Access

The whole purpose of the HazCom Standard is to protect workers who are exposed to hazardous chemicals. It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the most central responsibilities of an employer is to ensure their workforce can access the SDSs for chemicals they work with during their work shifts.

The key is that they must have access to the exact documents for the exact chemicals they work with, which means you have to maintain the SDS for the chemicals provided by the manufacturer, rather than “generic” SDSs. You also can’t have any barriers to access. Well-intentioned employers will often place binders of SDSs in a “right-to-know station” in a supervisor’s office, not realizing that the supervisor may lock the office when away, thereby preventing workers from accessing the documents in the event of an emergency.

OSHA allows for the use of internet or software-based systems to provide access to SDSs, as long as the system provides access to the specific SDSs for chemicals at your facility. The agency specifically states that this does not mean you can provide access by telling your employees to perform an internet search for the document. There’s no telling if your employee will locate the SDS for the correct chemical being used, or that the document they find online is the most current or accurate version of the SDS needed.

The real test is whether your system can provide quick access to SDSs. How quick? Think of how quickly you need to be able to retrieve an SDS in the event of a major chemical spill, fire or other emergency. If you have concerns about how well your current system would perform you should strongly consider one that can cut down response time to mere seconds, such as a cloud-based SDS management system.

Train Like Your Program Success Depends on It (Because It Does)

Training for the sake of training is a common pitfall that undermines so many HazCom training efforts. Ignore any talk you hear about “annual training.” Many people speak earnestly about the need to do annual HazCom training as a requirement within the HazCom Standard. They judiciously perform their training at the same time every year and believe, in all seriousness, that they are meeting their obligations.

The problem is the annual training mindset negatively impacts compliance and jeopardizes their HazCom management success. For one thing, OSHA doesn’t say you need to conduct training annually. What they actually say is that you need to conduct training at the time of initial work assignment and “whenever a new chemical hazard the employees have not previously been trained about is introduced into their work area.” You should also provide training whenever there is evidence that it was ineffective. For example, if employees don’t know where or how to access SDSs and are unable to find emergency response information on an SDS.

This mindset also risks fossilizing your training program, causing you to trot out the same old deck year after year instead of updating it when new chemical hazards are brought onsite and redoing it when needed. This makes for poor compliance and bad HazCom safety awareness.

Don’t convince yourself that you can demonstrate compliance just by proving you’ve done the training. Just doing the training and documenting it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve met your obligations. The most important thing is that employees understand the training. OSHA judges training compliance on a performance basis, meaning that they’ll only be convinced you’ve met their requirements if employees can demonstrate they understood the training.

That said, you should still absolutely document your training. OSHA recommends documenting specific aspects of training such as the outline of the training program, the identification of employees who attended and of the trainers, test or evaluation results and dates that training was conducted. This information will also help you determine when you may need to repeat training. For instance, if you know you last conducted training before you introduced a new chemical hazard class in the facility, that means your employees need to be retrained as soon as possible.

Preparing for the Future

While it can be difficult to get your bearings straight when it comes HazCom, I guarantee righting the ship now is the best way to help you prepare for the changes to come. Use this time to identify gaps in compliance now so you can seek additional help ahead of the next transition.  

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

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