FM Issue: HazCom Compliance Made Simple

By Mike Flynn
Published in the May 2011 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

Photo: MSDSOnline

For facility managers (fms) beset with meetings, building repairs, and other critical safety projects, maintaining Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) compliance is not always high on the priority list. Still, given OSHA’s consistent interest in HCS violations, the relative low cost and ease of maintaining compliance versus the price of non-compliance and the pivotal role hazard communication plays in promoting employee safety, fms may want to rethink their to do lists.

OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Thomas Galassi was recently asked why violations of HCS (or HazCom) annually rank in the top three of OSHA’s most cited standards. His answer should serve as a warning to every fm who has hazardous chemicals on premise.

Galassi said, “Violations are very observable. You don’t see a label or an MSDS. You don’t have to sample for it, or go to a lab.” He added that the agency frequently finds HazCom violations secondary to its primary focus during on-site inspections, thanks to the ease of spotting HCS infractions (much like the police officer who writes a ticket for a broken taillight after pulling a driver over for speeding).

The Five Components Of HCS Compliance

Most fms are familiar with HCS (standard 29 CFR 1910.1200) which spells out an employer’s responsibility to employees to communicate the risks associated with hazardous chemicals in the workplace. Nevertheless, for the sake of clarity, here’s a quick review of the five primary tools OSHA expects fms to employ in communicating those hazards (as an aside, HCS violations typically come from problems related to one of these items):

  • A written hazard communication plan;
  • An inventory of hazardous chemicals;
  • Container labels and warning signs;
  • Material safety data sheets (MSDS); and
  • Employee training.

Looking at this list, it might be difficult to identify which one is the key to HCS compliance—the one item that can serve as the engine for meeting the requirements of the other four items. At first glance, the communication plan or labels might stand out. However, the linchpin to HCS compliance in most cases is MSDS management. It’s the easiest way for fms (or anyone with hazardous chemicals, for that matter) to track workplace chemicals and communicate their hazards safely to employees. It is also one of the most underused communications tool.

Material Safety Data Sheets

To understand how MSDS management has the ability to transform HCS compliance, it’s important for fms to review what MSDSs are and think about how they are traditionally managed. An MSDS is a document that provides detailed information for a hazardous chemical, including:

  • its physical and chemical characteristics;
  • its potential hazardous effects; and
  • recommendations for appropriate protective measures.

MSDSs are normally provided by the chemical manufacturer, importer, or distributor with the first shipment of a hazardous chemical (and anytime the information changes). The operative word is normally; as many fms have learned, wrangling missing MSDSs can be an all too frequent and time consuming event.

For years, the leading MSDS technology was a three-hole punch and three-ring binder. Even years after the advent of easy electronic management solutions, many fms still keep their MSDS sheets—many of which are tired and outdated—in a decades old three-ring binder. Worse, when new or updated MSDSs arrive, they are stuffed into the outdated binder along with other announcements—with no regard for proper organization and placement.

Keeping MSDSs in this manner and making them available to employees during work shifts may meet the minimal technical requirements of MSDS management under HCS. However, it actually builds additional inefficiencies and time drains into an fm’s HCS compliance tasks, and it robs HCS programs of a great potential resource.

Managing MSDSs via a binder system requires all of the tasks associated with a binder to be done manually. That means searching the Internet and/or making phone calls to manufacturers for updates, switching out old sheets for new ones, making copies of MSDSs for back up or the creation of additional binders, and setting up and following some sort of filing system within the binder. So what are the alternatives?

MSDSs And Chemical Inventory

The first step to harnessing the power of MSDSs is recognizing their potential, particularly in aggregate as part of a well maintained MSDS library. Looking at OSHA’s list of employer responsibilities under HCS, it’s easy to draw a line between MSDS management and the other four items. For instance, a properly maintained MSDS library can be used to create a chemical inventory quickly.
Employing an electronic MSDS management solution can make the process easier still. The connections between MSDS management and other compliance responsibilities will depend on a well maintained MSDS library which can then be amplified via an electronic MSDS solution.

By turning an MSDS library into a thorough chemical inventory, a good electronic solution not only allows fms to print out a list of chemicals used in their buildings, it also allows a user to track where those chemicals are located. Now, fms can see on their computer screens, in one glance, all of the chemicals used in the entire facility, or just as quickly, what chemicals are stored in a specific location in the facility. Also, they can look up those MSDSs a number of ways: by product name, manufacturer, CAS (Chemical Abstracts Service) number, ingredients, and other keywords.

MSDSs And Labels

The creation of container labels and warning signs is another area where good MSDS management pays dividends. Now, most hazardous chemicals shipped to facilities will (or should) be properly labeled with the name and address of the manufacturer, the identity of the material (which links the label to the MSDS and chemical inventory), and appropriate hazard warnings. In many facilities, however, fms transfer chemicals into secondary containers which require their own labels.

MSDSs are an excellent tool for creating secondary container labels, especially for consumer products (e.g., glass cleaner) used in quantities and frequencies that typically exceed the normal usage outlined on consumer labels. In such cases, the information needed to produce a secondary or customized container label can easily be found on the MSDS.

Also to that end, a good electronic MSDS management solution can take secondary container labeling to another level by allowing fms to produce compliant secondary container labels or custom labels quickly and directly from the system for a particular product. In other words, an fm in need of a new label could go to his or her electronic MSDS library, select the MSDS for the chemical or product for which a label is needed, and then click print.

MSDSs And Employee Training And Written Plans

Employee training and the creation of a written HazCom plan also benefit from good MSDS management. Knowing what to train employees on related to chemical hazards and knowing what should be included in the written plan begins with the MSDS.

On the MSDS, fms will find information their employees need regarding protective equipment, proper handling of chemicals, and steps to take in the event of an exposure. Similarly, developing a process for managing MSDSs and making them available to employees is integral to the written HazCom plan.

Once again, a good electronic solution can aid in the training of employees and the creation of a written HazCom plan. Instead of hunting through an MSDS binder looking for all of the PPEs employees need to be trained on for the specific chemicals in a facility, fms can use an electronic system to print out reports that include hazard and PPE data for all of the chemicals on premise. These reports can then double as an outline for planning training. Also, instead of setting up an elaborate system for updating MSDSs as part of the written plan, good electronic systems allow fms to have new and updated MSDSs for the chemicals in their electronic library added directly to their account.

MSDS Management

Of course, managing MSDSs is an HCS requirement in its own right. Even without the added benefits good MSDS management provides in meeting the four other requirements, an up to date library helps keep employees safe. This is the main reason MSDSs were created in the first place.

As previously mentioned, fms are required to provide access to MSDSs to employees during their shifts, this is called “right-to-know access” (as in, employees have a right to know the dangers of the chemicals they’re working with). Making sure the information employees need is easy to find and current requires some work. Still, once the hard work of organizing is finished, most fms should find it’s easier to spend a little time on a regular basis maintaining the MSDS library, than it is to let it fall out of compliance and have to start the process all over again.

Furthermore, advances in technology and cloud computing have made powerful chemical management compliance solutions affordable for any size facility and budget. Such a solution can also help mitigate human error.

With a paper system, MSDSs can be taken out of binder and never put back, rendering that MSDS library out of compliance. On the other hand, fms who maintain an electronic MSDS library have an accurate picture of their chemical inventory as well as a corresponding MSDS for each chemical in their electronic binder helping them keep compliant. And printing backups of the library is as easy as clicking a button.

GHS On The Horizon

GHS stands for the Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. It’s a chemical HCS developed by the United Nations to unify the various systems used around the world. OSHA plans to issue a final rule sometime in August 2011 for the alignment of HCS with GHS.

What fms need to know about GHS is that in addition to streamlining the classification of chemicals, it brings with it some significant changes to labels and MSDSs. Labels will have new standardized elements, including new hazard pictograms; and MSDSs will be called simply safety data sheets (SDSs) which will have a new 16-section format. Once the rule is published, fms will have two years to train their employees on the revised HCS and three years to bring their facilities into full compliance.

During this transition period (or even sooner), fms will see major turnover in their MSDS/SDS library. An electronic system can help make the document churn less painful. It can also help with archiving of old documents.

Under OSHA standard 29 CFR 1904.1020 information contained on MSDSs must be kept for 30 years beyond the use of the chemical (technically, OSHA does not require the actual MSDS document but rather the information on the MSDS, and capturing that information is easy if the copies of the MSDSs are retained). To that end, an electronic solution can archive MSDSs so fms have a complete and convenient history of the hazardous chemicals they have used.

Better Than Magic

Of course, even the best MSDS management plan cannot entirely inoculate fms from HCS violations. Mistakes can happen.

However, when they do, a good conscientious plan can help mitigate the damage. Section 17, paragraph (j) of the OSH Act gives OSHA explicit permission to factor in an employer’s good faith efforts when determining penalties.

To that end, sound MSDS management is better than magic, because there is no trick to it. It’s simple, common sense actions that fms can take today to make their buildings safer. The same can be said of today’s electronic MSDS management tools. The better ones are straightforward, intuitive programs that have the potential to make HCS compliance the easiest part of an fm’s to do list.

However, time is running out, since the program expires on December 31, 2007. Without an extension enacted, building owners and managers have less than 14 months to plan and implement energy upgrades.

Flynn is vice president of product development & strategy for MSDSonline®, provider of on demand solutions for MSDS and chemical management and other critical safety information.