The History of GHS

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Did you know, the global chemical business is more than $1.7 trillion per year enterprise? Every day chemicals around the world are being manufactured and affect nearly every part of our lives. Some of these chemicals and substances can be hazardous, and it is important whoever is handling or transporting the chemical understands the associated risks through labeling and classification.

Prior to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals becoming a worldwide standard, different regulations for chemicals were used. This means a chemical could be classified as hazardous by one agency, but not another and so it is not labeled with the appropriate warning. Although many of the standards used pre-GHS were similar, the differences were too noticeable to ignore. With chemicals and hazardous substances constantly being distributed, manufactured, and exported, it became clear a harmonized system was needed to improve compliance and safety internationally.

The first GHS developments came at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.  A resolution was made that a harmonized system would be available by 2000. This system was to include a compatible labeling system, safety data sheets, and symbols. It was the hope that GHS would provide countries, agencies, and institutions a solid foundation to develop their own comprehensive programs.

The United Nations Economic and Social Council’s Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods (UNCEDTG)was reconfigured into a Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods and on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (UNCETDG/GHS) in 1999. Also during this time, a new Sub-Committee of Experts on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals was created. The development of new committees was a signal that a harmonized system was in the works.

In 2002 the Globally Harmonized System was officially developed, and The UN Economic and Social Council endorsed the system the following year. Countries were encouraged to adopt GHS in the coming years and in 2003 the first edition of GHS was published. GHS itself isn’t law, but rather a book. Called the Purple Book. this is a document that establishes hazard classification and communication provisions with explanations on how the system can be implemented.

OSHA’s Adoption of GHS

A few years after the Purple Book was published, OSHA indicated in 2005 that the Hazard Communication Standard was to be updated and it would adopt a number of the GHS components. In 2007, the Department of Transportation adopted GHS standards, being one of the first United States agencies to do so.  Two years after that, OSHA proposed that the HazCom Standard conform to GHS.

Finally, OSHA officially revised the Hazard Communication Standard and aligned it with the Globally Harmonized System in 2012. The transition was planned to take place over the course of four years with key dates being:

  • December 1, 2013: Employers are required to train employees on how to read GHS formatted labels and safety data sheets.
  • June 1, 2015: Chemical manufacturers and distributors need to complete hazard reclassification and produce GHS-compliant labels and safety data sheets. Distributors however, have a six month grace period.
  • December 1, 2015: Grace period ends, and distributors must fully comply with Hazard Communication Standards.
  • June 1, 2016: Employers are required to be in full compliance with revised HCS and completely aligned with GHS. This includes training of employees on new hazards and/or revisions to workplace hazard communication program.

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