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Your Guide To The Globally Harmonized System Classification Of Chemical Labeling

June 29, 2017

Cecilia De La Rosa

Cecilia De La Rosa

The title for this body of chemical labeling standards may sound like a mouthful, but it does have a very broad application, which perhaps justifies the long name. Although this set of standards has yet to be fully implemented, it is recognized as the current accepted set of standards for classifying and labeling chemicals throughout the countries of the world.

Why it was needed

Prior to the GHS classification system, there were numerous standards in place globally, and many of them referred to the same chemicals and hazards, which caused a great deal of confusion around the world. Whenever trade between countries occurred, the confusion would be exacerbated, since the parties would refer to these same commodities by whichever standard it had adopted. For the sake of safety in dealing with chemical materials, universal compliance to an agreed-upon system was clearly needed. By the year 1992, this situation had reached an intolerable level, and a conference had to be planned for the trading countries of the world to meet and try to agree on a universal set of standards for classification and labeling. From this global conference, the beginning of the GHS system emerged, and ever since that time, it has been undergoing refinement and enjoying greater acceptance among the nations of the world. The main areas treated by the system are physical hazards, health hazards, environmental hazards, and safety data sheets (SDS).

Physical hazards

Included in this category are nine different classes of hazards including:

  • Explosives
  • Gases
  • Flammable liquids
  • Flammable solids
  • Oxidizing substances
  • Toxic/infectious substances
  • Radioactive substances
  • Corrosive substances
  • Miscellaneous hazardous substances

Health hazards

The specific health hazards identified in this category are the following:

  • Acute toxicity
  • Skin corrosion
  • Skin irritation
  • Eye irritation
  • Serious eye damage
  • Skin sensitizer
  • Respiratory sensitizer
  • Germ cell mutagenicity
  • Carcinogenicity
  • Reproductive toxicity
  • Specific target organ toxicity
  • Aspiration hazard

Environmental hazards

The environmental hazards identified and treated in the GHS classification are as follows:

  • Acute aquatic toxicity
  • Chronic aquatic toxicity

The GHS labeling elements

The standards adopted for hazardous chemical labeling are comprised of graphics or symbols which depict the specific chemical substance, along with borders, backgrounds, and standardized coloring, which serve to further portray the hazard. Signal words like ‘danger’ or ‘warning’ identify the levels of hazard associated with various chemicals, and in some cases hazard phrases are used to clarify or emphasize the specific type of danger. The overall format of a label is defined clearly within the GHS standards, so there can be no misunderstanding or misinterpretation for chemical labeling.

Safety data sheets

Safety data sheets are intended to supersede the previous classifications of material safety data sheets (MSDS), and pertain to workplace labeling of chemicals. Information provided on these sheets will allow all employees to safely handle and store any chemical being dealt with, according to procedures considered to be totally safe. Some of the aspects treated within each SDS are: specific hazard identification, first aid procedures, handling and storage, physical and chemical properties, transportation methods, and disposal information.

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