Employers will find it easier to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA's) hazard communication standard, thanks to a newly released OSHA directive.

Federal law requires employers to meet the hazard communication standard, which calls for employers to provide information about dangerous chemicals to employees through a comprehensive program that includes substance labeling, material safety data sheets (MSDSs) and employee training.

The new directive updates and clarifies a number of long-standing OSHA requirements of the standard.

For example, the directive clarifies the issue of electronic access to MSDSs, stating that employers may provide MSDSs to employees through computers, microfiche machines, the Internet, CD-ROM and fax machines.

Employers using electronic means must ensure that reliable devices are readily accessible in the workplace at all times; that workers are trained in the use of these devices, including specific software; that there is an adequate back-up system in the event of the failure of that system such as power outages or on-line access delays; and that the system is part of the overall hazard communication program of the workplace.

Additionally, employees must be able to access hard copies of the MSDSs, and in medical emergencies employers must be able immediately to provide copies of MSDSs to medical personnel.

Also clarified is OSHA's policy on issuing citations for consumer products. Citations involving consumer products will be issued only when:

  • The use of the product is inconsistent with the manufacturers intentions; or
  • The frequency of use or the duration of use greatly exceeds that expected of an ordinary consumer.

For example, windshield-wiper fluid, which contains methanol, is meant to be used in a closed system and sprayed onto the windshield for cleaning. An employee using windshield-wiper fluid on a daily basis to clean windows or other surfaces would be covered by the standard, as such use of the fluid differs from the manufacturer's intended purpose. This example also illustrates a situation where the frequency and duration of exposure exceeds that of a normal consumer.

OSHA compliance officers issuing citations for either consumer products or manufactured items must describe the specific hazardous chemical in the product. OSHA will not issue citations stating, for example, that "glue" or "brick" is the hazardous chemical. The citation must name the specific chemical, for instance, toluene, silica, methyl ethyl ketone, sodium hydroxide.

The directive also includes appendices which can assist employers in compliance. For example, they provide guidance on the completeness of material safety data sheets and provide sample written hazard communications and training programs.

The issues covered in the directive include the American National Standards Institute's standards on labeling and MSDS preparation, reiteration of a stay-of-enforcement on the federal requirement that manufacturers update label information within 90 days of receiving information on a significant hazard, and acceptable training procedures.

The hazard communication standard is the most frequently cited OSHA standard and protects 32 million workers.

The OSHA directive provides guidance to compliance safety and health officers on enforcing the standard, and is entitled, "C.L. 2-2.38D, Inspection Procedures for the Hazard Communication Standard." It replaces a previous directive written in October 1990.

The new directive consolidates interpretations issued since the 1990 document, covers technical amendments and clarifications to the standard which were adopted in a separate rule-making in February 1994, and addresses issues raised in the September 1996 report to OSHA on hazard communication submitted by the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH).

The directive can be accessed through the OSHA home page on the Internet World Wide Web (http://www.osha.gov) under "Other OSHA Documents" and the "Directives." The OSHA Publications Office phone numbers are: (202) 219-4667 or fax (202) 219-9266. Additional information is available in a booklet, "Chemical Hazard Communication," and a program highlight sheet on "Hazard Communication," both of which are available under "Publications" through the OSHA home page. The booklet also is available from the U.S. Government Publications Office.

Reprint Courtesy of The Newsletter of the Hoosier Safety Council, Summer 1998.

Originally published in the 1998 Fall issue of The CampLine.