The story of GHS labeling requirements is a long one. Back in 1992, the United Nations first published a framework for a new standardized system of labeling dangerous chemicals around the world. Officially known as the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, these guidelines were meant to keep workers safe.

However, because more than 65 countries have agreed to adopt the GHS requirements, it’s taken decades for these rules to be fully implemented. If you’re just discovering the GHS or are not clear on hazmat labeling requirements, here’s what you need to know.

Why were the GHS requirements created?

In a globalized world, workers often have to handle hazardous chemicals imported from different countries around the world. Because each country has its own system for labeling dangerous chemicals (not to mention its own language), this put workers in potentially dangerous situations.

The GHS labeling requirements were meant to minimize this risk by establishing global standards for chemical labels. In the U.S. alone, this affects 43 million workers who produce or handle hazardous chemicals in more than 5 million workplaces across the country.

What does the GHS do exactly?

It is important to know that the GHS does not create concrete rules or laws for each country to follow. Rather, they form a collection of guidelines and best practices for hazardous communication systems.

Overall, the system covers classifying, labeling, and identifying risks. Before the GHS, custom chemical labels were different in every country, and international trade created new risks in the workplace. Now, there are at least some similar guidelines across borders.

As a result, many chemicals now come in containers with adhesive labels that better describe the contents inside. For instance, these containers might come with custom labels that signify they contain refrigerated gas that may cause cryogenic burns or injury (H281) or chemicals harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects (H412).

The different GHS classifications

The GHS focuses primarily on hazards to specific chemicals, and in the United States, there are more than 80 different combinations of hazards.

Some examples include:

  • May be harmful if swallowed
  • Repeated exposure causes damage to organs
  • Harmful to aquatic life

So far, the GHS requirements cover 29 unique hazards, which can be summarized in three broad categories:

  1. Physical Hazards
  2. Health Hazards
  3. Environmental Hazards

These classifications can include anything from explosives to carcinogenicity and hazards to the ozone layer.

Are GHS labels required by law?

Again, the GHS requirements are simply guidelines that countries have voluntarily agreed to. That being said, many countries did pass laws and regulations that require companies to label chemicals in accordance with GHS.

Five years ago in the United States, OSHA released the new Hazard Communication Standard, better known as HazCom 2012. While the U.N. guidelines don’t carry the force of law, HazCom 2012 does. That means all U.S. companies that produce commercial labels for chemical containers have to follow the HazCom standards.

How to learn more about GHS standards

If you need to ensure GHS compliant labeling for chemicals or other hazmat substances, then it’s important to understand both HazCom 2012 and the latest GHS requirements. For a wealth of information about these important global standards, including requirements for primary, secondary and small containers, country-specific variations, pictograms and example labels, please check out our Definitive Guide to GHS Label Requirements.

If you need help with your chemical labeling needs, please reach out to our experienced team today.