5 Frequently Asked Questions in a Post-GHS, Still Not Quite Harmonized World

Beginning in 1992 a group of experts from many countries under the auspices of the UN developed what we now know today as The Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). The GHS is a system meant to provide harmonized chemical hazard communication. It includes criteria for classification of substances and mixtures and also label elements such as pictograms, signal words, hazard statements, and precautionary statements.

OSHA adopted GHS with an update to the OSHA HazCom Standard officially referred to as “OSHA 2012” or more commonly as “OSHA GHS”. A number of other countries have also adopted GHS as well. It has been several years since OSHA 2012 was published and we are now well past all implementation deadlines both under OSHA 2012 as well as other different jurisdictions that have adopted GHS. In reality the adoption of GHS is not completely harmonized because competent authorities (OSHA = the competent authority in the US) are allowed to adopt GHS in the manner that is most fitting for their regulatory framework. This has led to some differences in how GHS was adopted.


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As many have already experienced, in transitioning to GHS within their organization, there has been confusion and many questions as a result. To further complicate matters, there have been different adoptions of GHS under other jurisdictions (like in the EU for example) causing the questions to increase exponentially. In working with clients on both ends of the manufacturer/supplier and employer spectrum of SDS responsibility we would like to share some of the most common questions and their answers.

#5 – My material has always been non-hazardous under the OSHA criteria.  It contains ingredients that are all present in less than 1% – therefore I can assume it’s still not hazardous – right?

Under OSHA 1994 the cut-offs for determining the hazards of a mixture were 0.1% for carcinogen and 1% for all other hazards.  Now under OSHA 2012 there are different methods for determining the classifications for a mixture that go beyond just the percentage of a single ingredient in a mixture. The methods to determine a mixture classification vary by hazard class and some hazard classes, like acute toxicity, skin corrosion/irritation and eye damage/irritation, do not include hard and fast single ingredient cut-off concentrations that determine a mixture classification. In addition, some hazard classes (mutagen and reproductive) have lower cut-offs that are now 0.1% under the new standard. So it is possible that a material that was once not classified as hazardous may now be considered hazardous under the new OSHA 2012 requirements.

#4 – Why do my raw material SDSs for the same substance have different classifications?

Although harmonization was touted as a benefit of GHS adoption, unfortunately that is not happening in practical application. The reality is that 1 substance does not equal 1 universal international classification for that substance.  A combination of factors is causing this to occur:

  • GHS adoptions in different regions or countries can vary, a classification that is applicable in one jurisdiction may not apply in another. Example: Aquatic hazard classes and Eye Irritation 2B.
  • Different data could have been considered to determine the classification – if different data is being considered this can result in different classifications as well.
  • Professional judgement also plays a significant role in determining any classification – two different professionals could look at the same data set and come to different conclusions on the classifications of the substance.

To further illustrate this point a presentation by a major global chemical manufacturer on GHS implementation provided at a 2015 professional conference on hazard communication reported that in a review of substance classifications there 18 different classifications  were identified for a 50-70% Nitric Acid and Water solution. This is the perfect example of how GHS is unharmonized throughout the world.

#3 – I am a chemical supplier. The skull and cross-bones pictogram that is now on the new GHS SDS for my product makes my material look too dangerous. Can I just remove the pictogram from my product SDS?

The Skull & Crossbones PictogramUnfortunately no, in most cases omitting a pictogram would not be advisable or recommended.  This is because under OSHA 2012 and GHS the pictograms and other label elements (hazard statements, signal words and precautionary statements) for any given classification are part of a required set of pre-determined label elements that must be used to communicate the hazards of the product.  Generically speaking if the classification applies – so do the prescribed label elements.

#2 –  If the document I receive from my supplier says “SDS” at the top of the first page does that mean it has been updated to be OSHA HCS 2012 or GHS compliant?

This is a resounding NO and by far one of the largest misconceptions regarding the transition. While one of the requirements of GHS and OSHA 2012 does technically include changing the name of the document from MSDS to an SDS, there are many other, and in my opinion, much more important and complicated aspects to completing an MSDS to SDS update. There are new classification criteria that include both entirely new hazards and mixture cut-offs that both must be evaluated. There are also requirements for format and content that must be met. As an employer, when reviewing if a document is OSHA 2012 compliant, more than just the header/title of the document must be considered.

#1 – Will all my MSDSs be updated to be SDSs? OR Why are all of my MSDSs not SDSs yet?

Technically not all MSDSs will be updated to be SDSs. This is because under OSHA there is no requirement to update MSDSs for products that have not been manufactured and shipped since the June 1, 2015 deadline. This means that in reality all MSDSs may not actually be updated. The take away here is to have an understanding of what products are still actively being used and properly dispose of the rest.

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