The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its much-anticipated directive to the agency’s compliance safety and health officers on its revised Hazard Communication (HazCom) standard yesterday. In 2012, OSHA revised the HazCom standard to implement the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. The revisions made significant changes to the classification of "chemicals" (a broadly defined term), to the labeling of chemical containers, and to the format and required content of "Safety Data Sheets" (formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets).

The new guidance outlines these changes and explains how the revised standard is to be enforced during its transition period (through June 1, 2016) and upon full implementation. Chemical manufacturers, importers, and distributors had to have complied with the new SDS requirements, and manufacturers and importers with the new labeling requirements, by June 1, 2015. Distributors must comply with those labeling mandates by December 1, 2015, unless they are relabeling materials or creating SDS forms, in which case they must already be in compliance by the June 1, 2015 date. Employers have until June 2016 to update additional employee training needed for newly identified hazards. OSHA’s guidance explains that during the transition period, some aspects of the pre-2012 HazCom standard may continue to be followed.

In addition to directing its compliance officers on enforcement of the revised HazCom standard, the new directive explains how that standard interacts with other OSHA requirements and with the U.S. Department of Transportation requirements for the labeling and handling of hazardous substances, and replaces earlier interim, enforcement guidance.

Finally, the guidance contains an important section on "general duty clause" violations of the OSHA Act. OSHA inspectors are instructed on the use of SDS forms to support citations for exposure hazards. The law imposes upon employers the obligation to "furnish ... to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm." (29 U.S.C. § 654.) The SDS sheets must include hazard information, which could help satisfy at least three of the requirements for violation of an employer’s "general duty"–the existence of the hazard, employer or industry recognition of the hazard, and its likelihood to cause death or serious injury. The fourth general duty clause requirement is that there exists a feasible means to eliminate or reduce the hazard, and this, too, could be satisfied, in part, from the SDS provisions on appropriate measures needed to protect employees from exposures.

Businesses whose operations involve the use and exposure to chemicals should review the new directive to ensure that they have met the currently effective compliance dates and are prepared to meet any applicable upcoming deadlines.

Ballard Spahr’s Environment and Natural Resources Group advises on national and regional compliance, permitting, rulemaking, development, business planning, and contamination matters. The Group also provides representation in litigation, during investigations, and for transactions. Ballard Spahr’s Labor and Employment Group routinely assists employers with OSHA compliance and in handling whistleblower complaints. For more information, please contact Denise M. Keyser at 856.761.3442 or, Lorene L. Boudreau at 215.864.8245 or, or the Ballard Spahr attorney with whom you work.

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