An electroplating worker puts on rubber gloves, preparing to degrease metal parts with the solvent acetone. The employee looks at the label and sees an image. This image—or pictogram—tells them the solvent is corrosive. Next, the worker grabs the closest pair of rubber gloves, puts them on, and immerses the metal parts in the solvent. Something isn’t right, though—the gloves are swelling up and starting to degrade. Feeling a burning sensation, the worker quickly pulls their hands out of the solvent and takes off the gloves.

How this could have been avoided?

What your employees need to know about hazard labelling

For years, the United States—and other countries—had their own, individual labeling systems. This created much confusion and posed serious risks as products were imported and exported.

Under the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling (GHS), the U.S. and other nations now use a standard communication approach, which provides uniform details on the nature and degree of hazard of a product, and the precautions you need to take. Pictorial labeling helps reduce language barriers. Those uniform details could have provided better information to our worker above, and let them know a different type of glove is needed to protect the hands.

What your employees need to do when working with hazard labels

Workers need to recognize the global labeling system and the format for safety data sheets (SDS).

Labels: Chemical manufacturers and importers must provide a label that includes the product identifier, supplier information (including name, address, and phone number of manufacturer, importer, or distributor). Labels also require each of the following items:

  • Pictogram: A uniquely identifiable symbol that when you see it, you should be able to identify a specific type of hazard.
  • Signal words: Either “Danger” for the most severe hazards or “Warning” for less severe.
  • Hazard Statement: Describes the nature of the hazard, including, where appropriate, the degree of hazard.
  • Precautionary Statement: The actions you take to prevent adverse effects from exposure to, improper storage of, or handling of a hazardous chemical.

Safety Data Sheets must accompany each hazardous material in storage or during transport. Under GHS, these documents come in a standard, easy-to-use 16-section format, which further details the danger of a hazard, how to properly store it, safely handle it, and effectively respond in the event of an emergency.

Make sure your employees know exactly where the data sheets are and that they take the time to read them.

What to cover at your safety meeting about hazard labeling

Discuss the GHS with your employees:

  • Print, distribute, and review the list of pictograms.
  • Print, distribute, and review a sample label to familiarize your employees with what to look for.
  • Print, distribute, and review the information on the safety data sheets.
  • Talk to your employees about the challenges they face in handling hazardous materials and how GHS makes this process safer and more efficient.
  • You might consider breaking the meeting into two parts: one focusing on the labels and one focusing on the Safety Data Sheets.

California law requires your employees receive training at the time of their first assignment, when any new chemicals arrive, and when new chemical hazards are identified.

As of June 1, 2016, only GHS-compliant labels and safety data sheets may be used in the United States. You can contact the product manufacturer if you need to update older materials. Several vendors offer the labels or label-generating software online.

GHS provides a safer work environment by providing clear communication on how to handle, transport, and store hazardous materials.