Spotting Chemical Dangers in the Workplace

By Stephanie Steinberger
Senior Loss Control Consultant

It sounds like a mouthful, but the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) is an important initiative to help keep employees safe.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, GHS is a worldwide initiative to promote standard criteria for classifying chemicals according to their health, physical and environmental hazards. To promote this effort, OSHA, in conjunction with the United Nations, developed a system of labels and safety data sheets to offer guidelines and information to protect employees around the world from chemical hazards in the workplace.

The origins of GHS date to the 1990s, with the first edition of system published in 2003.

Since then, GHS has been revised every two years as needs arise and experience is gained, with the most recent update in 2016. However, today many companies still are not in compliance with this critical safety program.

From my perspective as a loss control consultant, non-compliance simply is wrong. Companies have a responsibility to make employees aware of the dangers they might encounter in the workplace. Thanks to the GHS program, our industry has a consistent format for information on hazardous chemicals. It gives employers a much better perspective on safety overall, from what kind of clothing or materials protection to use, to safely handling accidental spills. There’s even information on what products to properly store next to each other and what to avoid. For example, did you know that you should never place an oxidizer next to a flammable product or there could be serious consequences?

GHS adopted a series of pictograms, or symbols, to communicate this safety information. This has proven to be a highly effective strategy to communicate to workers across language barriers or to below-average readers. When employees’ lives and the livelihood of a business is on the line, this simple approach to hazardous materials has proven to be a very valuable tool.

I encourage all companies to be proactive in adopting and enforcing the GHS standards. Employers need to work with their safety directors or human resources personnel to address this important issue. Training is critical so employees working with chemicals are aware of any potential safety hazards, know how to interpret a GHS symbol and understand the necessary protocols.

As the EPA states, the primary goal of GHS is better protection of human health and the environment by providing chemical users and handlers, emergency first responders and the public with enhanced and consistent information on chemical hazards.

Now that’s something we should all rally behind!

Stephanie Steinberger is a Senior Loss Control Consultant at CopperPoint Insurance Companies, a leading provider of workers compensation insurance and property and casualty insurance products.

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