ComplianceLegalJanuary 17, 2021

Complying with OSHA's hazardous material requirements

If your business involves hazardous materials, to be in compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's workplace safety rules you must not only follow safety precautions, but also maintain records and communicate information to employees and community emergency organizations.

It seems logical that an important piece of OSHA's safety rules is the appropriate handling of hazardous materials in the workplace. Complying with these hazardous material regulations involves much more than following safety protocols. Recordkeeping and communication regarding hazardous materials are an integral part of compliance as well.

Generally, if your business involves hazardous materials you must maintain records and communicate information to two entities — employees and community emergency organizations. Your business must provide:

  • Notice of hazards. Information about chemical hazards present in the workplace must be noted on the container labels, communicated to specific parties, and maintained in certain records.
  • Access to medical and exposure records. You must grant employees access to any of their individual medical records that you maintain and to records you maintain on the employees' exposure to toxic substances.

Your duties as an employer

Your obligation to provide information to employees and others varies, depending on the nature of your business. Basically, you must:

  • measure and communicate the possible hazards of chemicals you manufacture or import, if any
  • communicate dangers to any purchaser, if you distribute chemicals
  • ensure that warning labels are in place prior to bringing chemicals into the workplace
  • never remove or deface warning labels
  • obtain material safety data sheets (MSDS) and display them prominently in the workplace
  • make sure employees receive information and training and know what to do in the event of a spill or leak

Tip: What is the definition of a chemical? The term "chemical" is defined broadly as "any element, chemical compound, or mixture of the two." These regulations apply to every known chemical in the workplace, plus chemicals used in an emergency.

Exceptions. What items are excluded from these rules? The regulations do not apply to:

  • tobacco and tobacco products
  • wood and wood products
  • foods
  • drugs
  • cosmetics
  • beverages packaged for retail sale
  • consumer products used in the workplace
  • food, drugs, or cosmetics brought in by employees for their own use
  • drugs in final form dispensed as medicine in a health care facility
  • articles created with chemicals that are harmless in their final form

State laws regarding hazardous materials. When states regulate this process, generally the focus is on increasing access of local safety officials and health care providers to the material that the company must maintain on hazardous chemicals in the workplace.

Enforcement of communication requirements. Enforcement of the employer requirements for employee communication is achieved by requiring comprehensive hazard communication programs, including:

  • labeling of containers
  • material safety data sheets (MSDS)
  • written communications programs
  • communicating with the community about serious hazards

Hazardous material communication and recordkeeping requirements 

Material safety data sheets (MSDS) play significant roles in several OSHA hazardous material recordkeeping and communication requirements. The following is an explanation of what information is contained in an MSDS and how they are used for compliance purposes:

  • They are created and distributed as a part of comprehensive hazard communication program.
  • They are required as a part of any compliance obligation to be available and displayed prominently in the workplace. The public has a right to MSDS data upon request.
  • They must be written in English and contain:
    • the name of the chemical (same as on the label)
    • the chemical and common names of the substance
    • a listing of the ingredients
    • a statement of the ingredients that are known carcinogens or that present other known hazards
    • any specific hazards

In general, if your business uses hazardous chemicals (as opposed to manufacturing or importing them for sale to others) you should be able to obtain a MSDS from the manufacturer, so that you can post it in the workplace and keep it in your records.

Written hazard communication program

You must develop and maintain a written hazard communication program for your employees. This program must:

  • Describe the methods you will use to implement the regulations, with emphasis on labels and warnings.
  • Provide names and contact information for all individuals responsible for identification of hazardous substances, maintenance of MSDS, and other delegated responsibilities.
  • Explain the labels used.
  • Train on content and implementation.
  • Advise how MSDSs are distributed.
  • List all known hazardous chemicals cross-referenced with the MSDS.
  • Describe the procedure for employee access to MSDS.
  • Explain the process of informing employees of hazards in performing routine and nonroutine tasks and of the presence of chemicals in the workplace, including those carried in unlabeled containers, pipes, etc.
  • Ensure that notice to employees includes employee representatives.
  • Explain the method to inform outside contractors and their employees of any exposure to hazards.
  • Provide for a method to review and update all aspects of this communication program.
  • Describe how the written program must be available on request to employees, OSHA representatives, and representatives from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Community information about hazards

In the event that your business uses or stores extremely hazardous or toxic substances (such as hydrochloric acid or methane), you have to let the community know so that it can prepare itself in the event of accidental spills or emissions of those substances. This is more than just consideration; it is required by federal law.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act is designed, in the event of an emergency, to avoid further catastrophe when unacceptable levels of hazardous materials are released into the environment.

Owners or operators of facilities that have extremely hazardous materials must notify the state's emergency response commission that the facility is subject to the Act.

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