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Globally Harmonized System Update: OSHA Hosts Public Meeting to Discuss Preparations for December UN Meetings

Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., December 7, 2010

On November 30, 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) held an informal public meeting to solicit input for the upcoming session of the United Nations Subcommittee of Experts on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (“UNSCEGHS”), to be held from December 7-9, 2010, in Geneva, Switzerland.1  During the meeting, OSHA officials offered little insight into the position that the United States delegation would be taking with respect to various proposals to update the Globally Harmonized System (“GHS”).  Instead, they listened to input from the stakeholders in attendance.  OSHA officials indicated that they would consider the stakeholders’ comments while finalizing their positions on the proposals before the UNSCEGHS, but they emphasized that the comments would have no bearing on the rulemaking process for OSHA’s hazard communication standard (“HCS”).

1.   Background

Many countries have regulatory systems in place for hazardous chemical classification and labeling, but differences in the various country systems require multiple classifications, labels and safety data sheets (“SDSs”) for the same product when marketed in different countries or regulated by different authorities.  This leads to inconsistent information provided to those potentially exposed to chemicals, as well as regulatory burdens on companies selling chemicals in multiple countries. 

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development issued a mandate to develop a globally harmonized chemical classification and labeling system.  Pursuant to this mandate, a coordinating group of countries, stakeholder representatives, and international organizations developed the GHS.  The GHS contains classification criteria for physical hazards, classification criteria for health and environmental hazards, and hazard communication elements, including requirements for labels and SDSs.  The UN formally adopted the GHS in 2003 and encouraged countries to implement it as soon as possible.  The GHS has subsequently been revised, with the Third Revised Edition of the GHS released in 2009.2

In the United States, OSHA has the principal responsibility for regulating classification, labeling, and SDSs required for chemicals in the workplace.  OSHA began regulating the classification and labeling of chemicals in 1983, when it issued the HCS.3  The HCS was subsequently amended in 1987 and 1994 to expand its coverage and make technical changes.  On September 30, 2009, after the issuance of the Third Revised Edition of the GHS, OSHA issued a proposed rule that would substantially modify the HCS to conform with the GHS.  OSHA’s proposed modification to the existing HCS included minor changes in terminology and definitions, revised criteria for classification of chemical hazards, revised labeling provisions, a specified format for SDSs, and requirements for employee training on labels and safety data sheets.4  OSHA accepted public comments on its proposed rule until December 29, 2009.  It is in the process of finalizing the HCS rule with the expectation of publication in 2011.

2.   UN Session on Harmonized Labelling

Between December 7 and 9, 2010, the UNSCEGHS will meet to discuss several proposals for updating the Third Revised Edition of the GHS.  These proposals address: (1) classification of chemically unstable gases and gas mixtures; (2) determination of the chemical instability of gases; (3) the inclusion of simple asphyxiants; (4) revision of precautionary statements in annexes 1, 2, and 3 of the GHS; (5) draft amendments to the GHS that were adopted in principle by the UNSCEGHS at its nineteenth session; (6) hazard communication for the supply and use of aerosols; (7) revision of the precautionary statements for gases in transportable gas cylinders under pressure; (8) hazard communication for gases under pressure; (9) addressing potential issues associated with the adoption of “corrosive to metals” for supply/use situations; and (10) editorial changes.5

In addition, the UNSCEGHS will discuss: (1) the development of a global list of GHS classified chemicals; (2) information relating to nanomaterials that has been developed by Australia; (3) ongoing work on dust explosion hazards; and (4) ongoing work on corrosivity criteria.6  A U.S. delegation will be in attendance, headed by OSHA, that includes the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.  The U.S. delegation and will offer its position on these proposals.  

3.   OSHA’s Public Meeting

On November 12, 2010, OSHA announced that it would hold an informal public meeting to discuss the proposals that will be before the UNSCEGHS in Switzerland.7  This meeting took place at OSHA’s Headquarters on November 30, 2010.  It was led by Maureen Ruskin, the Director of the Office of Chemical Hazards - Metals, for OSHA’s Directorate of Standards and guidance.  Over 40 different stakeholders participated in the meeting, including representatives from industry groups, labor groups, consumer groups, and various companies.

During preliminary comments, Ms. Ruskin explained that the purpose of the meeting was to gather information and comments from the public that the U.S. delegation could consider when developing its positions for the UNSCEGHS meeting.  She also explained that the comment period has ended with respect to the proposed HCS standard, and that OSHA would not consider any comments made during the meeting when finalizing the HCS proposal.  Finally, in response to questions about how any further updates to the GHS would affect the HCS rulemaking, she explained that there would have to be additional rulemakings to incorporate any new changes to the GHS into the HCS standard.

Ms. Ruskin then proceeded to introduce each of the proposals that will be before the UNSCEGHS, and ask if the participants had any comments on those proposals.  The proposals regarding the inclusion of simple asphyxiants, supply and use of aerosols, the supply and use of substances and mixtures that are “corrosive to metals,” and the development of a global list of GHS classified chemicals generated the most discussion among the meeting participants. 

A.   Proposal to Address Simple Asphyxiants in the GHS

Representatives of labor groups voiced strong support for the proposal to address simple asphyxiants in the GHS.  Representatives from industry were generally supportive of the proposal, but voiced concerns that the proposal was not confined to asphyxiants in confined or enclosed spaces, and did not reference any test methods.

B.   Hazard Communication for Supply and Use of Aerosols

Representatives from consumer groups voiced strong support for the proposal relating to the supply and use of aerosols.  It would create a category, hazard standard, and precautionary statements for non-flammable aerosols.  In response to a question from a meeting participant, OSHA officials indicated that the United States has been supportive of a category for non-flammable aerosols in the past.

C.   Proposal to Address Potential Issues Associated with the Adoption of “Corrosive to Metals” for Supply/Use Situations

The proposal regarding “corrosive to metals” was met with opposition by several meeting participants because it was seen as a way to avoid labeling, as it would allow labeling elements to be omitted where a substance or mixture is corrosive to metals but not to skin and/or eyes.  In particular, some commenters pointed out that metal corrosion can lead to fires and other hazards, thus warranting hazard warnings.  Other commenters, however, supported the proposal because they believed that it was not necessary to warn consumers if the substance or mixture only led to minimal corrosion at the consumer level. 

Another commenter pointed out that hazards associated with substances and mixtures that are corrosive to metals but not to skin and/or eyes may not be a big problem, since they have never been regulated by OSHA.  OSHA officials conceded to the meeting participants that they had not yet developed a position on this proposal.

D.   Global List of GHS-Classified Chemicals

The meeting participants supported ongoing discussion about the development of a global list of chemicals classified according to GHS criteria, but noted several concerns.  In particular, they were concerned about who would develop the list, the methods that would be used to develop the list, mechanisms for updating the list, dispute resolution, harmonization by sector, and whether the list would be binding.  OSHA officials agreed that they wanted to continue discussions about a global list and would actively participate in those discussion.  

4.   Conclusion

OSHA’s public meeting in preparation for the UN Meetings on the GHS generated productive discussion among various stakeholders about how the GHS should be updated to better classify chemicals and communicate hazards.  OSHA has shown a commitment to conforming with the GHS.  Although it is yet to be seen what position the U.S. will take on the proposals to be considered in Geneva, there is a possibility that there could be future OSHA rulemakings to adopt further changes to the GHS.

For a printable PDF of this article, please click here.

This client alert was prepared by Mark Duvall, mduvall@bdlaw.com, and by Jayni Lanham, jlanham@bdlaw.com.


1 Preparation for December UN Meetings on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification of Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), 75 Fed. Reg. 69472 (Nov. 12, 2010).

2 See Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., GHS Update: Release of the Third Revised Edition and OSHA’s Proposed Rule Implementing the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (Oct. 1, 2009), http://www.bdlaw.com/news-666.html.

3 29 C.F.R. §§ 1910.1200, 1915,1200, 1917.28, 1918.90, 1926.59. 

4 Hazard Communication, 72 Fed. Reg. 50280 (Sept. 30, 2009).  See Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., Harmonizing Hazard Communication: OSHA Proposes to Implement the Globally Harmonized System (Oct. 16, 2009), http://www.bdlaw.com/news-706.html.

5 AC.10/C.4 - Working Documents 2010 - Sub-Committee of Experts on GHS, available at http://www.unece.org/trans/main/dgdb/
dgsubc4/c42010.html
.

6 Id.

7 Preparation for December UN Meetings on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification of Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), 75 Fed. Reg. 69472 (Nov. 12, 2010). 

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