Consider your daily commute. Along the way, you encounter signs that alert you to potential dangers ahead. They are visual indicators of warnings that get the message across without words. This warning system relies on visual representation that is understood across languages. It's also an indicator of our increasingly integrated world, one that is no longer limited to cities, states or countries. It is important that we use it as a tool to communicate safety.

The globally harmonized system (GHS), mandated by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), accomplishes this goal through an international method of relaying hazardous chemical safety. Recognizing that many manufacturers transfer chemicals internationally, GHS sets a new precedent that more clearly defines safety standards, communicates dangers visually, and ensures that professionals working with hazardous materials are more knowledgeable of them.

Prior to the implementation of GHS, companies used Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for safety reference. GHS has replaced MSDSs with Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), which are more organized reference lists that outline a concise set of safety standards to which professionals must adhere. All important information is now located in the same place, across the board. Sixteen components of SDSs communicate crucial information about chemical identification, appropriate safety responses, proper handling and storage, and chemical information regarding composition, reactivity and toxicology. Of these 16 components, OSHA regulates 12. Outside agencies regulate ecological information, disposal, transportation and regulation.

In Section 2, "Hazards Identification," GHS introduces two big changes: the use of signal words and pictograms. Two phrases are now used solely to identify threats: "WARNING" for less-severe hazards and "DANGER" for more-severe hazards. Pictograms function in the same manner as familiar road sign indicators. Each pictogram is a white diamond, outlined in red with a symbol in black, which denotes one of the following nine hazards: explosive, flammable, oxidizing, compressed gas, corrosive, toxic, irritant, health hazard or environmentally damaging. These visuals communicate a specific hazard that's understood universally.

OSHA has outlined an incremental implementation of GHS to make international hazcom safety most effective:

• Dec. 1, 2013: All employers must have employees trained on the new labeling and SDS format. It is crucial that employees not only receive training but that they demonstrate a deep understanding.

• June 1, 2015: Chemical manufacturers, distributors and employers must produce new labels and SDSs.

• Dec. 1, 2015: Chemical distributors no longer can ship containers that do not have GHS labels.

• June 1, 2016: Employers must have all workplace labeling comply with GHS standards. Any additional employee training must be completed by this date.

The GHS is an important component of regulating chemical hazards in our increasingly connected world. While this article outlines its most significant components, it is important to become familiar with all of its standards. Visit for a more comprehensive understanding of the 16 SDS components and additional OSHA mandates.

By Kathy Meyer, operations manager for Kentucky Building Maintenance Inc., with editing assistance from Natalie Hulla, independent writer and editor.

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Valuable resources available

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