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The Hazard Communication Rule: Their Right to Know; Your Duty to Inform

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More than 32 million workers in the United States are potentially exposed to chemical hazards on the job. If you find that a staggering figure, consider this: According to OSHA, there are an estimated 650,000 existing hazardous chemical products, with hundreds of new ones introduced every year. OSHA's Hazard Communication (HAZCOM) Standard (HCS) is based on a simple concept: that employees have both a need and a right to know the identities and hazards of the chemicals to which they are exposed. They also need to know about protective measures to prevent negative effects.

This Compliance Report reviews the HAZCOM standard (also known as "Right to Know") and outlines the components of an effective compliance program. We also present insights from two safety and health consultants who have seen their share of programs-some effective and others wanting.

The Big Picture

HCS (at 29 CFR 1910.1200) covers physical hazards, such as flammability or the potential for explosions, as well as acute and chronic health hazards. OSHA believes that making information available to employers and employees about the hazards and recommended precautions-that is, developing a strong HAZCOM program-is the key to reducing illnesses and injuries caused by chemicals.

What's involved? First, OSHA requires chemical manufacturers and importers to evaluate the hazards of the products they make or import and to provide information about them through labels on shipped containers and via detailed descriptions known as material safety data sheets (MSDS). Also, all employers with hazardous chemicals in their workplaces must prepare and implement a written hazard communication program. And, they must ensure that all containers are labeled, employees have access to MSDSs, and an effective training program is conducted for all workers who are potentially exposed.

The rules are slightly different for workplaces where employees interact with chemicals in sealed containers not opened under normal use conditions. Examples would be retail operations, warehousing, and truck and marine cargo handling. Employers in these situations must ensure that labels on incoming containers are kept in place. They must maintain and provide access to MSDSs received, or obtain MSDSs if requested by an employee. And they must train workers on what to do in case of a spill or leak. They are not, however, required to maintain a written HAZCOM program.

OSHA believes that when workers know about chemicals in use, "they can effectively participate in their employers' protective programs and take steps to protect themselves." The same information gives employers what they need to design and implement their HAZCOM programs.

The federal Hazard Communication Standard pre-empts all state or local laws (for private employers) that relate to the issues it covers. The only state worker right-to-know laws authorized are those in states that have OSHA-approved state plans. State-plan laws cover both private and public employers in those states. New York , New Jersey , and Connecticut state plans cover public employers only. The private sector in those three states falls under federal OSHA.

Changing the Paradigm

Cass Willard is co-owner of Paradigm EHS Consulting Group, which serves clients in the public and private sectors. The Tulsa-based company frequently assists employers with HCS programs and compliance. Willard recommends a systems approach to hazard communication, as he does for other safety and environmental programs. The benefit of a system, he believes, is that it allows for continuous improvement. Systems should be specific to the business and its culture, should be designed to involve employees, and should be able to easily accommodate changes in processes or materials.

"Companies make the mistake of reviewing the standard, putting in a generic program, including videotaped training, and thinking they're done," Willard says; rather, HAZCOM should be dynamic and should lead to continuous improvement. According to Willard, the most essential component of an effective HAZCOM program is management commitment. In fact, he says that he and his colleagues at Paradigm have refused to take on consulting assignments at businesses where they could detect a lack of top-level support and commitment.

How do you get company leadership to buy into the importance of HAZCOM? One means is to share OSHA statistics-for years, HCS citations have been among the most common issued by the agency. Willard, a history buff, also likes to make the case using examples from the past. "We try to educate them about the history of exposure and disease. We talk about the 19th century hatters who used mercury to soften pelts to make beaver hats. The mercury was absorbed through their skin and they breathed the vapors, which led to neurological diseases and the mad hatter reference in Lewis Carroll's ' Alice in Wonderland.'"

He also tells clients about the sad fate of women who painted radium dial clocks for a living. These glow-in-the-dark timepieces were used in industrial settings in the early 20th century. "The women would lick their paintbrushes to get a fine point for marking," explains Willard. Because the paint contained radium, many of the women contracted cancer as a result. And, of course, he talks about Bhopal , India , where in 1984 a methyl isocyanate leak killed 10,000 people.

The depth of the human tragedy is one message he delivers. Another is the difficulty for a business to remain viable once a large-scale tragedy takes place. He urges top brass to understand the importance of HAZCOM and to ante up the resources needed to develop a top-flight program.

Common Pitfalls

Willard says that OSHA's requirement for a written program is where many businesses fail. "A generic program from the local Vo-Tech isn't enough," he cautions. A viable document should be site-specific, should plainly spell out who will do what, where the chemical inventory will be kept, how MSDSs will be managed (including employee access), and how training will be conducted.

The chemical inventory is a list of all substances that meet OSHA's definition of potentially hazardous. The list should reflect all chemicals for which an MSDS must be maintained. That's the hard part for many employers, says Willard. He praises the availability of online MSDS repositories, although noting that it can be costly to subscribe to online services, but cautions that it's not a fail-proof means of providing employee access. Because it can mean that an employer no longer has to keep a thick three-ring binder with MSDSs, the tricky part is ensuring that employees can obtain and read an MSDS as easily as they could read sheets from a binder.

He explains that OSHA uses the term "readily accessible" to mean there can be no barrier between the employee and the needed document. That can be difficult at sites where not all employees work at computer terminals. Willard says another important consideration if online MSDSs are used is a backup plan in case of a power outage. This should be described in detail in the written program.

Training and Labels

The heart and soul of a HAZCOM program is training. Willard believes that, here too, many employers content themselves with a generic program that barely skims the surface of what employees need to know. A common misconception about HAZCOM training is that it is required on an annual basis. Rather, OSHA mandates that employees be trained upon initial employment, and when tasks or chemicals used to perform those tasks change. Another condition that would warrant training is if an audit or inspection reveals that employees do not have an understanding of MSDSs or chemical labels.

At Paradigm Consulting, the emphasis is on hands-on training that is engaging and often fun. A HAZCOM game based on "Jeopardy" is a real crowd pleaser. The consulting group has also developed a number of tabletop exercises that get trainees involved and, before they know it, teach them a great deal about chemical hazards, including how to interpret highly technical MSDSs.

Although annual training is not required, Paradigm Consulting recommends it. The group also suggests turning over some of the training to employees who clearly have an interest in chemicals and who are willing to learn more and share their knowledge. Willard says the nature of the dialogue that can result when employees stand up in front of their peers can be "surprising" and quite positive.

OSHA states in HCS that all chemicals in the workplace must be labeled. Information that must be present includes the name of the chemical and warnings about any hazards it may present. Willard believes most employers are fairly respectful of labels these days, but challenges remain. For example, for products manufactured abroad, labels must be translated into English. And if they are in English, but workers speak other languages, they must be accommodated. He says proven systems like the NFPA Diamond can be quite valuable in labeling and training. And he notes that employers can develop their own labeling systems, as long as they meet OSHA requirements and the plan is outlined in the written program.

Beyond Hazards

But recognizing and explaining hazards isn't enough, says Dan Markiewicz, a Toledo-based safety and health consultant. He makes the distinction between a hazard, which he defines as "the potential for something to cause harm," and risk, "the probability that harm will occur under specific conditions of use." In a world where most employees have access to the Internet (either at work or at home), employers must do more to prepare themselves for the detailed questions and concerns of employees.

He cites the example of toluene, a clear, colorless liquid that is a by-product of making gasoline and other fuels and in making coke from coal. The substance, which is regulated by OSHA, is used in making paints, paint thinners, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives, rubber, and other applications. In the past, an employer seeking to comply with HCS might have told employees about toluene's chemical properties, that it can be hazardous, and that OSHA has identified a permissible exposure limit for it.

But an employee who knows how to conduct a simple Internet search will quickly learn that toluene is a developmental and reproductive hazard that can cause birth defects, and they will come across other information not necessarily shared by the employer. Markiewicz says employers must recognize that employee access to information requires that they be better prepared to respond. Markiewicz is a proponent of risk communication in addition to hazard communication. The idea is "to provide information to people so that they can make an educated decision about whether or not the risk is acceptable to them." He stresses that the purpose of communicating about risks is not to persuade or to alleviate fear.

A Valuable Tool

According to Markiewicz, employers who want to know more about chemicals in use at their facilities may wish to become familiar with International Chemical Safety Cards (ICSC). These cards summarize essential information about chemicals. They were developed jointly by three international organizations: the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Labour Office, and the World Health Organization. He believes they will become increasingly important as entities and nations, including the United States , move closer to globalization of chemical descriptions and risks. Markiewicz likes the cards because, unlike MSDSs, "which can be written by anybody," the ICSC information is peer-reviewed.

According to the ICSC movement, the cards "are not legally binding documents, but consist of a series of standard phrases, mainly summarizing health and safety information collected, verified, and peer-reviewed by internationally recognized experts &." The cards are considered a basic tool to supply employers and employees with information about the properties of chemicals they use. They can also be helpful in employee training. ICSC hopes to generate approximately 2,000 cards over the next several years. Since 2001, the cards have been available for free online. (The best way to learn more, and to see the existing cards, is to use any large search engine. Type "International Chemical Safety Cards" into your browser.)

Much to Know

When is the last time you actually read through 1910.1200 and its various appendices? It's a good starting point if your purpose is to enhance or improve your existing hazard communication program. The Internet is also a rich resource for best practices and compliance assistance.

Requirements under OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard can be stated in a few simple sentences, but compliance with those requirements is a more complex matter that requires constant vigilance. For help with meeting training requirements under the HAZCOM Standard, call us at 888-465-0404 or e-mail info@trainingonline.com for more information.

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