Health, Safety, Security and Environment

Hazard Communication and Health Hazards

5 min read

If you work with industrial chemicals each day, then you make your living in a high-risk work environment. Chemicals are a broad category, but almost always we’re talking about substances that are unpredictable, unstable, and dangerous when handled unsafely. Chemicals may be made of organic or inorganic compounds that, in some combination, are not naturally occurring in the environment, which is part of the reason they present a danger. They are normally highly refined and now more than ever, created for specialized processes or purposes.

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  • Recognize the purpose, scope and elements of the hazard communication standard.
  • Identify how chemical hazards are determined.
  • Identify the purpose of a Safety Data Sheet, and its components.
  • Identify chemicals and their hazards, through labeling and warning practices.
  • Recognize the physical and health hazards inherent with common chemicals and certain occupational exposures in construction.
  • Recognize the information and training required by OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard.

Chemicals are dangerous because there are so many ways in which these substances can inflict trauma for workers. Certain chemicals contaminate the air and cause respiratory distress. Others are highly combustible. And some, when they come into contact with the skin or are physically ingested, create very nasty problems. If handled improperly, chemicals may burn, explode, cause cancer and other illnesses, or poison and sicken.In your workplace, chemicals may come in many different forms; they may be dusts, mixtures, or common materials like paints, fuels and solvents. The potential health effects from exposure depend upon the chemical itself, how it is used and what protections are in place to keep you safe.

Working with chemicals always involves risk. Carelessness and ignorance of the dangers chemicals may present greatly increases the risk of exposure, or property damage and personal injury. Because there is so much to learn about the safe handling of specific chemicals, ignorance is a factor commonly cited in chemical related accidents.

Over 10,000 American workers are harmed by incidents involving chemicals each year.


Understanding the potential dangers of chemicals you are likely to encounter will help you to make informed decisions regarding safe handling, and to take the appropriate protective measures to avoid accidental exposure, measures that include the use of personal protective equipment and precautions to avoid taking the risk of chemical exposure home with you.

Every day you encounter numerous signs and symbols designed to provide clear information and direction while keeping you out of harm’s way. Just like road signs provide recognizable directions through symbols, there are signs in your workplace that are designed to guide you. To protect employees from exposure to hazardous chemicals in the workplace, OSHA established the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). The HCS is a globally harmonized system of hazard communication. The HCS represents an international classification of chemical hazards, and a standardized approach to label elements and safety data sheets.

The Hazard Communication Standard requires an employer to provide information to employees who are or could be exposed to chemical hazards. This requirement is referred to as a hazard communication program because it incorporates several coordinated aspects, such as training, Safety Data Sheets (SDS), a container labeling system, and other forms of warning for all hazardous chemicals used on site.

Employers are required to have a written hazard communication program and to provide you with additional training regarding site-specific chemicals. The core of your company’s hazard communication program consists of three key areas.

Core Elements of the Hazard Communication Program:

Chemical Inventories and Safety Data Sheets (SDS)

  • Updated inventory of the hazardous chemicals present at the workplace;
  • Each hazardous chemical must have a Safety Data Sheet (SDS);
  • SDSs must contain required information, be easily understandable and accessible.

Labels and Warnings

  • Employers must make sure workers know how to be safe when working with or near hazardous chemicals, through a hazard communication training program.

Hazards Training

  • Reinforces safety practices through a hazard communication training program;
  • Informs employees of the hazards of non-routine tasks.

The Hazard Communication Standard classes and categories provide specific criteria to classify health and physical hazards according to the chemical’s hazard potential. The chemical manufacturer or importer uses the results of the hazard evaluations to determine the content of both the Safety Data Sheets and the container labels for each product.

Companies may rely on the chemical manufacturer’s or importer’s evaluation or may choose to perform separate hazard evaluations. If the chemical is created as a by-product of its operations and is shipped from the facility, the company must conduct its own evaluations.

Safety Data Sheet (SDS)

  • Developed by the chemical manufacturer in accordance with the Hazard Communication Standard;
  • Provides more details than the chemical label;
  • Must be revised or replaced when new information is learned about a chemical’s hazards.

When chemical manufacturers, distributors, or employers, become aware of new hazards for a chemical they must:

  • Revise labels for the chemical within six months;
  • Ensure labels on containers of hazardous chemicals shipped after that time contain the new information.

If the chemical is not currently produced or imported, the chemical distributor or employer must add the information to the label before the chemical is shipped or reintroduced into the workplace.

In addition to the original manufacturer labels, employers may use in-house labels, sometimes referred to as secondary labels. These labels must meet the Hazard Communication Standard requirements.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Workplace Hazardous Material Information System offer acceptable alternative labeling systems and are often used for workplace containers. If an in-house label is used on a container already labeled by the manufacturer, it is an addition and must not block out any of the manufacturer’s label.

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