Danger, Will Robinson, danger! That truckload of Fe2O3 that just pulled up to the loading bay might be toxic.
Well, not really. Fe2O3 or ferric oxide might be nasty orange-red and evil-looking, but it’s actually just rust. Both its chemical formula and industrial name, however, are recipes for wasteful, even dangerous, misunderstanding. In 1987 in San Diego, a 50-pound bag of ferric oxide fell off a truck and made a mess on the road. The red dust and the unfamiliar name on the split bag (“ferric oxide”) immediately raised red flags among local authorities who thought they had a toxic chemical emergency on their hands. Unfortunately, so did the Hazardous Incident Response Team, which closed the road for eight hours as men in full protective suits swarmed the area.
Hazards communication has improved since then, but not as much as it should have. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. workplace safety watchdog, hopes to change that soon though. According to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, OSHA has now updated its Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to be consistent with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS).
The GHS aims to establish the same set of rules worldwide for classifying chemical hazards, as well as the same format and content for labels and datasheets. The U.S. Department of Labor expects this consistency afforded the revised HCS to help U.S. companies hurdle trade barriers around the world.
Solis explained that the upgrade will benefit workers and employers alike by making it safer for the former to do their jobs and easier for the latter to be competitive abroad. Specifically, the updated HCS is expected to enhance hazard communication in the following areas: understandability, quality, and availability of hazard communication at the worksite. Under the new HCS, a typical hazard communication should be able to tell the worker in easily understood language and graphics a chemical’s identity, properties, and possible harmful effects.
The updated HCS requires chemical manufacturers and importers to have on their product labels a harmonized signal word (a signal word that’s consistent with the GHS recommendation), a pictogram, and a hazard statement for each hazard class and category. The new HCS also requires them to prepare precautionary statements and safety data sheets in a 16-section format to ensure uniformity and readability. Companies that store toxic chemicals in their workplaces are required to avail their employees of these labels and safety data sheets, as well as train them in the proper handling of the chemicals.