Hazard Controls for Chemical Use Just MSDSs Are Not Enough to Protect Workers
More than 20 years after the Employee Right to Know Act gave new rights to employees who work in facilities that store hazardous chemicals, individuals in the workplace are still being critically injured, still being diagnosed with terminal illness, and still dying from exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Though no major changes have been made to the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS), OSHA has recently implemented a number of initiatives to make it more effective. Whether its three-pronged approach that calls for better compliance, enforcement and training is enough, though, remains to be seen.
Chemicals are ubiquitous in the workplace in the United States and other countries. It has been estimated by OSHA that there may be as many as 650,000 hazardous chemical products in use in the US, and the HCS applies to over 3 million American workplaces, with more than 30 million potentially exposed workers.
Though not a stand-alone communication mechanism, Material Safety Data Sheets are an integral part of the approach to hazard communication. The most important way that the HCS works today to reduce chemical source illnesses and injuries is to ensure that workers and those who provide protections for workers—physicians, nurses, industrial hygienists, safety engineers and other professionals—have the information they need about the chemical to devise protections.
Selection of appropriate engineering controls, personal protective equipment, and controls such as substitution, is predicated on knowing what chemicals are present, what form they are present in, and what their hazardous effects are, including physical and chemical characteristics.
In order to ensure chemical safety in the workplace, information must be available about the identities and hazards of the chemicals. The HCS requires the development and dissemination of such information.
Issues regarding effective hazard communication have been considered by OSHA and others for a number of years. The key issue in terms of accuracy is that the quality of MSDSs and labels produced by chemical manufacturers and importers needs to be improved.
Critics suggest that MSDSs are drafted with an eye toward litigation rather than a commitment to public health and safety, and that they are provided in formats containing algebraic code, technical formulae and industry jargon.
Training of workers is essential to ensure that they understand the information provided, where they can get more information, and how they can use the information to protect themselves. Since labels and MSDSs are based on hazard information, training is also the means an employer can use to address risk related to the workplace situation involved.
In our report titled “Will Politics Trump Public Safety in HAZCOM Reform?” Matt Russell, president of the Russell Public Affairs Group, a national communications firm specializing in public policy and public relations, features Congressional testimony by Jon Hanson, safety director at Wyoming Medical Center. Hanson testified that his facility had implemented a program, called MAXCOM, which resulted in annual savings to his facility of tens of thousands of dollars. The program, developed by MC Technologies, was developed from a unique categorization process wherein a facility’s thousands of chemicals are each assigned to one of just 36 categories and three hazard levels.
In his testimony before the same Committee, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw agreed that there were some liabilities in the current mechanism to communicate the hazards of chemicals, but stopped far short of proposing a legislative or regulatory fix. He proposed publishing “guidance documents” – one of which can be found in this issue — that would help the industry to more effectively comply with the existing regulations.
He argued that OSHA “has been very careful in considering changes [to the current regulations] because modifications to the [chemical] labels and the MSDS would be costly and time-consuming for the private sector.”
Let’s hope that’s enough, though we’re not sure it will be, since “the health and safety of the American worker is in the balance,” said Hanson, “and we simply cannot allow private sector innovations to be held hostage by the potentially protracted pace of the public sector.”