The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS)

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You may have heard of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) and wondered what it is and how it applies to your organization.

GHS is a United Nations (UN) designed system to classify and label chemicals consistently worldwide.

This is particularly important when chemicals are imported or exported, as differing regulations from country to country can result in inconsistent labels or safety data sheets for the same product. This discrepancy can cause the same chemical to be labeled as cancer-causing or flammable in one place and not another.

To address this problem, the GHS provides standardized criteria for classifying chemicals according to their risks and harmonized hazard communication requirements (like standard pictograms to illustrate the hazards of a chemical, consistent messaging, and consistently formatted safety data sheets).

The GHS is not a standard but rather a framework. The first edition of the GHS, which was intended to serve as the initial basis for the global implementation of the system, was adopted in December 2002 and published in 2003. Since then, the GHS has been updated, revised, and improved every two years as needs arise and experience is gained in its implementation.

The tenth revised edition of the GHS, published in 2023, is the most recent revised edition available. Following the 2-year cycle of work of the GHS Sub-Committee of Experts, a new revised edition of the GHS may be expected to be published in 2025.

Authorities like OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) use the recommendations made by the GHS to implement OSHA’s mandatory requirements

The OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS or HazCom) was established before GHS was implemented. HazCom requires employers to give workers access to important hazard information. This information includes labels and safety data sheets prepared by manufacturers and training on handling relevant chemicals. However, HazCom did not require a specific format for this information.

OSHA has changed its program to align with the GHS to increase the quality of information workers receive rather than simply ensuring they have access to it. This implemented the harmonized safety data sheet format from the GHS into the HCS. Integrating the GHS standardizes how employees receive the information they need, increasing both efficiency and safety.

Canada also has a worker safety administration called the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), which has a set of requirements for hazard classification and communication similar to OSHA’s HCS. It is called the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), and it was also updated to match the GHS framework.

Other countries have adopted the GHS into their workplace standards, but in some cases there is still work to be done for the system to be fully global and harmonized. GHS implementation by country can be found at the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

It is essential to comply with the GHS implementations within your country’s safety standards when applicable. Chemical Safety Software’s management system can help organize your Safety Data Sheets and print out GHS-compliant labels for any chemical in your inventory.

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