The Right to Know: How Hazard Communication Became a Standard

The Right to Know: How Hazard Communication Became a Standard

In order to create a safer work environment, employees need to know what hazards are present and how to mitigate them.

Workers today understand that they do not have to work in an environment that jeopardizes their health, but it wasn’t always that way. Employers had not always been incentivized to ensure safe work and certainly were not looking at citations, violations or penalties for failing to provide personal protective equipment, safety training or data highlighting a jobsite’s hazards. 

For OH&S’ special 90th anniversary coverage in the March issue, we are going to take a look back at the history of the Hazard Communication Standard, which also became known as the “Right to Know” laws. We will take a look at how this standard was created, the evolution of the standard and how employers and safety professionals can ensure compliance. 

Hazardous Materials and Their Impact on Workers 

Before we jump into the history of the Hazard Communication Standard, it is important to understand what was happening in workplaces prior to the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  

In the January/February issue of OH&S, I briefly touched on the study of a workers’ environment and how it impacted their health. Some of the earliest indicators that chemicals and substances were wreaking havoc on worker health was back in the Industrial Revolution when employees completed their duties alongside anthrax, mercury and lead, which later would come to be known as highly toxic, hazardous materials.  

The increase in lead materials brought on by the Industrial Revolution would sicken women and children working in all stages of lead processing, such as pottery glazing, smelting of lead ores and manufacturing lead compounds. Workers would fall ill from working with hides and wool contaminated by athrax. Later, workers would be found to have exposure to cyanide, which would cause headache, nausea, confusion, seizures and cardiac arrest

It was made clear that a failure to obtain proper disclosure of the materials used by workers lead to improper or ineffective medical diagnosis and treatments as many of the symptoms to chemical poisoning and infection were similar to other commonly known ailments such as influenza and heart disease. Creating a system that not only tracked what chemicals were present in a workplace, but also how they could impact an employee became paramount to the health and wellness of employees across the country.  

The Introduction of the HCS 

In 1983, OSHA introduced the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). The HCS said that manufacturers and importers were required to evaluate the hazards associated with the chemicals they produced or distributed. This information would then be required to appear on all container labels, and outlined in the corresponding Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs).  

OSHA said that the concept behind the HCS was to arm employers and employees with information that would ultimately lead to safer workplaces for all. The MSDSs were a huge part of disseminating relevant information pertaining to safe handling procedures, proper storage, disposal practices, and what to do in case of an accidental exposure.  

In 1994, the HCS was updated to include an employee right-to-know provision which stated that employees had a right to know the risks associated with the chemicals they may be exposed to. For this reason, the MSDSs were required to be readily available on site and kept updated with the most accurate data.  

For the most part, chemical manufacturers, distributors and importers carried the brunt of the responsibility when it came to filling out the MSDSs, but it was the responsibility of the employer to read and understand the information portrayed. The updated provisions also mandated that all employers would need to train their employees who would be exposed to chemicals. 

The Evolution of the HCS  

After nearly 30 years of workplaces becoming compliant with the original Hazard Communication Standard (with some minor revisions), OSHA set forth on a quest to revise the HCS to align with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, more commonly known as GHS.  

Ater a decades long effort, former OSHA Director Dr. David Michaels announced that the alignment with the GHS would move forward in 2012. The adoption of the GHS ushered in a new era for workers. Many look at the adoption of the GHS as the shift from “Right to know” to “right to understand” as the key elements of the GHS centered around increasing the quality and consistency of information provided to workers, employers and chemical users by adopting a standardized approach to hazard classification, labels and safety data.  

The biggest changes to the HCS were around hazard classification, labels, safety data sheets and training. OSHA estimated that the greatest costs to businesses were around reclassifying chemicals, making the shift from MSDSs to Safety Data Sheets, training of workers on new hazards and formats as well as color printing labels. This was to cost over $200 million, spread out over four years of deadlines.  

Though the costs seemed steep, the agency believed that there would be annualized savings of $500 million and the prevention of 43 fatalities and 583 injuries annually.  

Perhaps one of the biggest changes was the shift from the MSDSs to the Safety Data Sheets, or SDSs. The SDS would now have a 16-section format rather than the standard eight that was used with the MSDSs. The revised standard also brought with it a change to the labels used to make workers aware of the hazards each chemical could cause. The labeling and SDSs became completely aligned with the GHS which was used all around the world. 

HazCom Today 

Though the standard has been revised to align with the GHS to reduce the number of workers injured by hazardous chemicals, standards violations still happen frequently. In fact, for fiscal year 2021, the Hazard Communication Standard was on OSHA’s Top 10 Most Frequently Cited Standards list sitting at number five with 1,939 violations.  

According to Patrick Kapust, deputy director of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, companies and organizations are violating the standard by forgoing written hazard communication programs, failing to provide effective information and training to employees on hazardous chemicals in their work area and maintaining copies of Safety Data Sheets. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2020, the most recent year of data, there were 3,540 incidents of chemical burns involving days away from work. This number can be significantly reduced with more training, education and time spent with employees helping them to understand what impact chemicals can have on their safety and health.  

On page X of this issue, you’ll find a Toolbox Talk on chemical safety. Feel free to copy this page and disseminate to those who may need a refresher on hazardous chemicals. More time spent understanding Safety Data Sheets and labels, training on how to react to spills, and educating on health issues can only help to reduce incidents involving hazardous chemicals. 

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

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