by Elizabeth Grossman
His job, the Metalworkers Alliance of the Philippines union leader told us, was assembling the electronics – the wire- or cable-harnesses – that go into cars. The work involved soldering, using flux, along with epoxies, and various degreasers or solvents. He and his co-workers didn’t know the actual names of the substances they were working with or what was in those products. They also didn’t know if it was a coincidence, but two co-workers had become seriously ill and the union leader and other co-workers had begun to worry that these diseases might have been caused by chemicals used on the job.
After the meeting the union leader sent me five photographs of labels from the packaging of some of these chemical products. Four are entirely in Japanese except for their expiration dates and one brand name. One container has several pictograms but these icons don’t correspond to Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) and while cautionary are not entirely clear. Hours of research including searches to fully identify the one English-language label have yielded nothing substantive that might provide useful information about the substances these workers were using – and therefore exposed to – regularly.
These are the kinds of unanswered worker questions the just-finalized revisions to the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) Hazard Communication (HazCom) standard are designed to help prevent from arising in the US. Starting next year, OSHA’s HazCom standard will incorporate provisions of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) that requires use of internationally recognized pictograms and hazard categories on chemical product labels and their safety data sheets. These will be a contrast to current typical US safety labels and material safety data sheets (MSDS), which often fall short of giving workers’ meaningful information about the chemical hazards to which they are exposed.
From “nightmare” to “right to understand”
During the OSHA rulemaking process, workers used these terms to describe MSDSs: confusing, inadequate, incomprehensible and a “nightmare.” One witness testified that his co-workers would not even ask to see an MSDS because they were too complicated, a situation that defies the objectives of the original HazCom standard. Workers’ experiences are corroborated by empirical research, which has consistently found the information on MSDS to be of poor quality and consistency for the purpose of hazard communication.
The revised OSHA HazCom standard and use of the GHS system will eliminate inconsistent labeling and hazard categorization, and will standardize safety data sheets (SDSs). The new chemical product labels with their warning pictograms, signal words, hazard and precautionary statements will help alert workers to products that pose any kind of health hazard. Preparers of SDSs (previously referred to as MSDSs) will be required to use a standard format with 16 mandatory sections with consistent headings in a specific sequence.
“This is very important for workers,” said David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, announcing the new standard on a call with reporters. “It’s been too hard to read different material safety data sheets. This changes all that.”
As David Irby, a safety rep. and United Steelworkers’ (USW) member who works Severstal Steel Plant in Sparrows Point, Maryland said, “We have the right to know. What we need is the right to understand.”
The new standard, said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, “will reduce confusion, especially for low wage and low literacy workers.”
The new safety data sheets will also have to include information about any “hazards not otherwise classified” by GHS. Included among the substances that fall into this category under the new OSHA standard are asphyxiants, pyrophoric gases – gases that ignite upon contact with air – and combustible dust.
The revisions to the Hazard Communication Standard, which OSHA estimates will affect some 43 million workers in 5 million workplaces – including approximately 90,000 facilities, with about 3 million employees, that produce hazardous chemicals – are projected to prevent more than 500 worker illnesses and injuries (about 300 non-lost-workday injuries and illnesses, about 200 lost-workday injuries and illnesses, and an estimated 64 chronic illnesses) and 43 fatalities a year. They are also projected to save US business somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion annually due to streamlined and simplified hazard communication training and other safety and productivity improvements resulting from GHS. In addition, use of the universal labeling system will “level the playing field” for US businesses importing and exporting chemical products, said Assistant Secretary Michaels, and make it easier for these companies to be competitive in the global market.
The GHS system was first approved by the United Nations in 2002 and has since been adopted by many countries. China, Japan, Australia, Canada, and countries in the European Union, however, require SDSs to list environmental hazards, while the OSHA hazard communication standard GHS provisions do not.
Appreciating progress – and hoping for more to come
As United Steelworkers Director of Health, Safety and Environment, Mike Wright pointed out, hazard communication has come a long way since the 1970s, before there were any requirements to tell workers anything about the chemicals they were using or being exposed to in the workplace. With these revisions, made largely to meet the objective of global harmonization, workers themselves will benefit. Under the previous OSHA HazCom rule, Wright reminds us,
“There was no standard format for labels or SDSs, no standard hazard warnings, no standard anything. But now with these revisions, we’ll have labels and SDSs that will be standardized, with clear and simple hazard warnings, and pictograms.”
That’s an improvement that workers will recognize. But there are a number of things the revisions and GHS do not do to eliminate barriers to full understanding of chemicals workers may encounter on the job:
• No requirement for Spanish translations: The new standard will not eliminate some basic language barriers. Pictograms will advance rudimentary understanding of general hazard categories for those who don’t read English. But according to OSHA, “while some companies may find it necessary, based on customer demand, to provide products with labels and safety data sheets printing in Spanish, the revisions to OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard do not contain any requirement for translating labels or Safety Data Sheets into Spanish.” The standard does specify that information may be translated into any language as long as it is also always available in English.
• Reliance on information provided by chemical manufacturers: For chemicals with full data sets, the new standard will provide handy shorthand. But it does not change the fact that the information included on safety data sheets relies on information provided by the chemical manufacturer, just as it has historically. And this still leaves a huge number of chemical products – especially, but not exclusively, newer products – currently in commercial production (often at high volumes) without any available toxicity information. Any number of current material safety data sheets are used as provided by manufacturers, with “no data available” listed for all categories of toxicological information. This is true of chemicals used in food contact products, personal care products, and cosmetics, as well as chemicals used in industrial processes and as chemical intermediates.
Additionally, certain health hazards – adverse impacts on hormone function, for example – that may not be identified in standard toxicological testing that relies on effects at high doses to determine toxicity may remain absent from safety data sheets. While such health hazards could be included as “hazards not otherwise classified” or captured under “reproductive hazards” or “organ target” hazards, there is no specific category for hormone function hazard.
• Absence of additional enforcement mechanisms to ensure timeliness and trade-secret claim substantiation: The new standard requires the chemical manufacturer, importer or employer to ensure that safety data sheet information “accurately reflects the scientific evidence used in making the hazard classification” and to add any “significant” new information to data sheets within three months of becoming aware of this information. But there is no audit process for safety data sheets and how this requirement will be enforced remains to be seen.
The new standard also allows chemical identities to be withheld on safety data sheets if trade secret claims can be substantiated, the hazardous properties and health effects of such chemicals are described on the data sheets, and information is made available to emergency and medical personnel when necessary. Confidentiality agreements may be required for health and safety professionals involved with training and planning. False claims of trade secrets are subject to citation by OHSA. At the same time, a manufacturer can ask OSHA to impose additional conditions to protect trade secrets beyond confidentiality agreements with health and safety personnel.
So while the revisions to OSHA’s HazCom standard brings many changes to how chemical hazard information is conveyed to workers – and the United Nations’ GHS mandate does help extend important basic hazard information and the right-to-know concept to countries where it had not existed previously – it will not fill all of the outstanding gaps in the availability of toxicological hazard information for a great many chemical products. This means that workers can continue to encounter safety data sheets (like these two revised in the past six months) that list a chemical product as 90 to 99% proprietary with the remainder either proprietary or “not applicable,” with no toxicity data available. Such a product might be perfectly safe but based on this information, with or without pictograms, it’s impossible to know.
Ensuring that workers have access to even more comprehensive health and safety information about the chemicals they’re exposed to on the job may require strengthened US chemicals policy or additional action on OSHA’s part. At the moment, however, workers and their advocates have made a big step forward in their right – not just to know – but also to understand occupational chemical hazards.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.