The Definitive Guide to Globally Harmonized System (GHS) Labeling

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globally harmonized system

The Globally Harmonized System (GHS) is a set of standards that has been adopted by companies, governments, universities and other institutions around the world. The system is focused on creating one set of standards for hazard communication which will also ensure that those who use this system agree on things like the criteria for the classification of different chemical hazards.

While the system was created largely to help get everyone on the same page when it comes to hazard communications so that it was easier and less confusing, it does require that those who adopt the system take the time to really understand it. This guide will help you to learn what GHS is, how it can help your facility, how it should be implemented and much more.

This guide is not meant to replace any official training courses or compliance manuals. Instead it will help give you more of a high-level overview of what GHS is, GHS compliance requirements, how GHS can help your facility and more.

To start with, lets answer some simple questions:

What Does GHS Stand For?

GHS stands for Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. 

What is the Purpose of GHS?

GHS purpose

The reason GHS was created and why it is used in so many places today is to help improve workplace safety. By implementing a global set of standards it is much easier avoid miscommunications, which can result in serious accidents. This is important since chemicals are often made in one country and then shipped to another for use. When you have one global set of standards you don't need to worry about relabeling items (which can be costly) when they are shipped internationally. 

What is GHS?

To dig a little deeper into what this set of standards really is it is good to look at a brief history of GHS. For most companies, GHS really became important back on March 26, 2012 when OSHA published their final rule that revised the old Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to be in line with the GHS. This brought the GHS, which was already fairly popular outside of the United States, into this country.

The update impacted millions of workers throughout a wide range of different workplaces. The update had a direct impact on things like the classification of hazards, the labeling requirements, the use of safety data sheets, and training for employees. 

GHS was originally created by the United Nations in 1992. Its intent was to help bring greater agreement for chemical regulations and standards for people in different nations. This is and was important because of the fact that companies from around the world work together to make products, so it was critical to have one main standard.

What is GHS Compliance?

GHS ComplianceThe first thing to note when it comes to GHS compliance is that it is not an international law. Many people hear that it was developed by the United Nations and think that there may be some sort of UN enforcement, but that is not the case. The UN largely created the standards and made them available to people and governments around the world. They do not, however, have any requirements or enforcement power related to whether or not any country or company follows their standards.


That being said, however, OSHA has updated their Hazard Communication Standard to align with the Globally Harmonized System. 

GHS compliance was rolled out slowly to allow companies to make the necessary adjustments overtime so that it did not cause significant cost issues or disruptions to work. Today, however, GHS compliance is the standards that all facilities must be in line with to avoid potential fines or other penalties from OSHA.

Of course, OSHA can submit recommendations for GHS but they do not control it. Likewise, the UN cannot and does not require that OSHA adopt GHS or any aspect of GHS. OSHA, however, recognizes the benefits of the globally harmonized communications standard and works hard to implement in throughout the country.

GHS Labeling Requirements

There are many GHS labeling requirements that facilities need to be aware of. The following are some specific requirements for chemical manufacturers as well as chemical importers. these requirements need to be met when labeling chemical containers.

GHS Signal Words

The signal words can help people to immediately gauge the level of risk associated with a specific chemical or substance in a labeled container. There are two approved GHS signal words that are used today:

  • Danger - Danger is a more severe hazard and should be used when the substance being labeled can cause severe risks (death or long term problems) or it represents an immediate serious risk.
  • Warning - Warning is not as severe, but still dangerous. Chemicals that may require prolonged exposure to cause health issues, for example, will use the 'WARNING' signal word.

One important point to keep in mind regarding GHS signal words is that only one of them should be used per label. If there is no serious risk to a substance, the GHS signal word is not needed.

GHS Hazard Pictograms

There are nine pictograms that are officially approved by GHS. OSHA requires that facilities use eight (not including the environmental hazard pictogram) of these whenever they are applicable. That being said, most responsible companies today will use all nine of these pictograms in their GHS labeling strategies.

  • Health Hazard - This pictogram is used for any chemical that can cause cancer, cause mutations, reproductive issues, developmental issues and more. It should also be used on chemicals that can cause respiratory issues or problems with specific organs.
  • Flame - The flame pictogram is to be used on any flammable solids, liquids or gasses. If the chemical or other material is liable to ignite, this pictogram is needed.
  • Exclamation Mark - This one is used for substances that can cause any type of damage to skin or eyes. Chemicals that can cause dizziness or other similar reactions should also be labeled with the exclamation mark.
  • Gas Cylinder - This is to be used for any gasses that are contained under pressure. 
  • Corrosion - This pictogram is to be used for any chemical that can cause skin burns or chemicals that may damage metal due to its corrosive properties.
  • Exploding Bomb - Any substance or mixture that can cause an explosion. Whether it needs an ignitor to explode or it can explode in other situation, this pictogram should be used.
  • Flame over Circle - This is for any oxidizer. These can cause fire on their own or by releasing oxygen or other gasses that have a flame risk.
  • Environment - This is for an aquatic toxin. Any chemical that can harm fish, water based animals or plants.
  • Skull & Crossbones - Any poison should have this pictogram. Whether the poison can cause harm via eating, skin exposure, inhalation or any other method. 

GHS Hazard Statement

Proper use of GHS hazard statements is not only important for remaining in compliance with OSHA requirements, but also for keeping everyone safe.

The following are the categories of codes that can be used in a hazard statement. Each category will have multiple specific codes within it. In this list there will be several examples of what types of codes are in each category:

  • Physical Hazards - This category is going to be used for substances that can cause a physical hazard such as a fire, explosion or other issue.
    • H200: Unstable Explosive - This should be used when the substance is unstable and can explode in certain situations.
    • H221: Flammable Gas - This code is used when labeling any flammable gas. There are some more specific options (such as H223: Flammable Aerosol) that should be used when possible.
    • H251: Self-Heating; may catch fire - Any substance that can heat up on its own (perhaps when exposed to oxygen, for example) and catch fire.
  • Health Hazards - Health hazard statements are used when a substance can cause a health problem when consumed, inhaled, exposed to skin or in other situations.
    • H300: Fatal if Swallowed - Any substance that can cause death if swallowed should have this code.
    • H316: Causes Mild Skin Irritation - When labeling substances that cause mild skin irritations, this code should be used. 
    • H350: May Cause Cancer - Any substance that can cause cancer should have this code on the label.
  • Environmental Hazards - These codes are used specifically when a chemical or substance can cause negative aquatic environmental issues.
    • H400: Very Toxic to Aquatic Life - Any substance that can cause death to aquatic plants or animals should have this code as part of the hazard statement.
    • H402: Harmful to Aquatic Life - Chemicals that can harm aquatic plants or animals but isn't likely to kill them will need to have this code on the GHS label.
    • H411: Toxic to Aquatic Life with Long-Lasting Effects - This code is for substances that can cause long term harm to the water it is exposed to.

GHS Precautionary Statement

The precautionary statement is an important part of most GHS labels. They will provide readers with information regarding what steps need to be taken in the event there is exposure, or what steps can be taken to minimize exposure to the hazardous substance. 

Here are a few examples of GHS precautionary statements commonly seen.

  • Code P201 - Obtain special instructions before use.
  • Code P210 - Keep away from heat/sparks/open flames/hot surfaces. - No Smoking
  • Code P311 - Call Poison Center or Doctor/Physician
  • Code P402 - Store in a Dry Place

Global Harmonization Labels

Blank GHS labels

Understanding the requirements of GHS labels is very important. Just as important, however, is making sure you have access to the labels you need when you need them. This can prove difficult for some companies because they attempt to order pre-made GHS labels from a third party print shop or other provider. In addition to being more expensive in the long run, it is also not very efficient.

The best way to make sure you have the labels you need when you need them is to use GHS label printers. A GHS label printer allows you to create the exact label you need right when you need it. There are many different options available when it comes to choosing the right industrial label printer for your facility. Looking at your specific needs and then determining which printer is right for you doesn't take too much time, but is well worth the effort. 

One example of a high-quality printer that can produce compliant and professional-grade GHS labels is the LabelTac industrial printer. You simply pick out the blank GHS labels that come pre-printed with the approved red hazard diamond and load it into the printer.

The intuitive LabelSuite software will guide you through the design of the label, and you will have a GHS label in just a few seconds! The LabelTac 4 Pro is a smaller printer but is very easy to use. It can print quickly so you won't be waiting on your labels to complete a job. 

GHS Safety Data Sheet

GHS Safety Data Sheet

Safety data sheets, which used to be called Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are used to communicate specific hazards that are related to chemical products. Like the labeling requirements, GHS has a variety of specific requirements for all safety data sheets.

There are multiple sections that should be used when creating a safety data sheet. Here is a brief introduction to the 16 sections:

  • Identification - This will include things like the product information including manufacturer, distributer, address information, recommended use and more.
  • Hazard Information - This can be a list of all hazards associated with a given chemical. Also included in this section is all the elements of a label that this chemical will require.
  • Composition on Ingredients - Section three will need to have detailed information about the ingredients that are in a chemical. In addition, any trade secret claims must be listed here.
  • First Aid Information - Here you need to document all symptoms or effects caused by exposure. Treatment recommendations should also be listed here.
  • Fire Fighting Information - Document any recommendations on how a fire associated with this chemical should be fought. Also include details about potential toxicity of the smoke from the fire and other information.
  • Accidental Release Information - This is where you will list all emergency procedures and protective equipment needed to deal with a situation where this chemical is accidently released.
  • Handling and Storage Information - Detailed instructions for how this chemical can be safely stored and handled. Things like temperature requirements, altitude requirements and more can be listed in this part of the GHS safety data sheet.
  • Exposure Control Information - Here you will add things like OSHA's permissible exposure limits, and other details regarding how much exposure may be safe with the chemical.
  • Physical and Chemical Properties - List all the chemical properties.
  • Stability and Reactivity Information - Any relevant stability or reaction information regarding the chemical.
  • Toxicological Information - Information about how someone may be exposed (inhalation, skin exposure, ect) and effects of exposure.
  • Ecological Information - Detailed information about any ecological impact this chemical may have.
  • Disposal Information - List how this chemical should be safely disposed of. Included here would be preventative instructions such as "DO NOT pour down drain. "
  • Transport Information - Any information needed for transporting the chemical safely.
  • Regulatory Information - Detailed information regarding regulatory requirements. For example, if a chemical needs to be declared before crossing specific boarders.
  • Other Information - Any other relevant information such as the date that the chemical was prepared.

One of the best things you can do to make sure you are creating SDS's properly is to have an approved GHS safety data sheet example on hand that you can use as a guide. Keep in mind that most standard chemicals will already have GHS safety data sheets made for them, which can be used. You'll just need to update the pre-made sheet with any specific information regarding your company and how the chemical is to be used.

2019 Changes: GHS Revision 8

In July 2019, the 8th revised edition of GHS was published. Amendments were approved and these new changes include:

  • Change of Classification Criteria for Aerosols. Under the new edition, aerosols will be classified in three categories for their hazard class. They are determined based on their flammable properties, heat of combustion, and applicable test results.
  • New Hazard Category: Chemicals Under Pressure. It is now possible to identify and classify chemicals under pressure, which are solids or liquids that are pressurized with a gas at a certain temperature and pressure. Information on criteria, as well as corresponding signal words, pictograms, and hazard statements, are provided.
  • New Labeling Example for Sets or Kits. GHS revision 8 introduces examples for set/kit labeling for situations in which there is not enough space to relate the required information.
  • New Precautionary Pictograms for “Keep out of Reach of Children”. This edition includes two new pictograms developed by AISE and JSDA. The pictograms efficiently convey the meaning of precautionary statement P102: “Keep out of reach of children.”
  • Other Hazards Not Resulting Classification: Dust Explosion. An altered Annex 11 provides advice on dust explosion hazards. It covers potential factors, identification, mitigation, prevention, communication, and risk assessment.
  • Skin Corrosion/Irritation Classification Based on In Vitro/Ex Vivo Data. The new revision now includes detailed instructions on how to use in vitro/ex vivo test data to analyze whether a substance or mixture causes skin irritation and corrosion. Previous test methods addressed either corrosion or irritation, not both.

Global Harmonization System Training

The last, but maybe most important, topic that we will go over is the GHS training that you will need in your facility. Just like any other strategy in your facility, if the employees don't understand it or don't follow it, then it will be virtually useless. With this in mind, you need to have a good training program created to help ensure everyone is on the same page.

GHS Training

You will have a lot of options when it comes to providing your employees with GHS training. In most cases a company is going to want to use multiple different approaches to ensure their teams know everything they need to know to stay in compliance with the GHS requirements.

Most new employees, for example, will need to go through an initial training session to get them up to speed regarding what GHS is and how it will impact their day to day activities. Some companies will provide this type of training on site as part of a new employee orientation program. Others send them to third party training seminars.

If offering the training onsite, you want to make sure you are working from a good manual or GHS guide to ensure all the most important topics are covered. Once the main training is completed, you will want to take steps to ensure GHS is always on the minds of those working in the facility. Here are some ideas on how you can do this:

  • Follow Up Classes - Offering annual 'refresher' classes will help ensure people don't forget anything important.
  • Update Handouts - Whenever there is an update to the GHS standards or how your facility uses them, make sure you provide detailed explanations to each employee.
  • GHS Posters - Putting up GHS posters in your facility is a great way to have a constant visual reminder to those who are working in the area.

Coming up with the right long term strategy for your facility is very important. When done properly you will be able to ensure everyone understands GHS and follows the standards today and long into the future.

GHS Benefits

When you understand the GHS system and how it works you will have no trouble seeing the benefits it can bring your facility. Even if you don't factor in the OHSA regulations and only look at the direct advantages to your facility, you can certainly see how great a system this can be.

Whether you are operating a small local facility or an international company, you want to make sure you run everything as safely as possible. Implementing and keeping up on the GHS standards will help ensure your facility can be safe for your employees and the surrounding community.


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