Companies that deal in large quantities of chemicals — commercial cleaning services, manufacturers and distributors, to name a few — have about two months to train employees in the new global standards for hazardous chemical communications.
The deadline for the first round of training in the new standards is Dec. 1, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The U.S. is adopting global standards for hazard symbols and associated chemical safety information, which OSHA and safety consultants said will improve employee understanding of the chemical hazards they're working with.
They also will improve safety for companies exporting their goods to other countries or importing chemicals from abroad by eliminating label confusion, with minimal cost in most cases, consultants said.
"It's making it easier for employees to see what the hazards are," said Jim Jacono, manager of safety and training at Cumberland County-based Eichelbergers Inc., which does business as Safety Consulting Services. It helps others audit and improve their safety environment and employee training.
Under the new standards, employees can see one of the nine hazard pictograms and look up the safety data sheet, or SDS, for more information on the specific chemical. In the old U.S. system, workers needed to look up every number and color combination to understand the hazards, Jacono said. The new system also will help those employees who have impaired reading skills to better understand the hazards, he said.
The new regulations technically cover any chemical in the workplace, with exceptions for store-bought consumer goods, products covered under agricultural regulations or other sections of federal law, according to the OSHA regulation.
Finalized in 2012 and known as the Globally Harmonized System, or GHS, it covers about 43 million workers. It is expected to help reduce the number of workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses from chemicals, of which there are more than 600 incidents every year, according to OSHA.
"We're the last of the 25 industrialized countries to adopt GHS into our standards," said Dale Rothenberger, regional sales manager for Zee Medical Service Co.'s office in Reading. Zee sells medical, first aid and safety equipment and has been educating clients about the new hazard communication regulations.
In 2003, industrialized countries at the United Nations agreed to standardize hazard communications for chemicals consistently moving back and forth in a global marketplace, Rothenberger said.
"For most businesses, those materials come into the receiving dock," he said. "If you're an employee who's not aware of this new information, you won't know what to do."
The first round of training is basic introduction to the new system, and companies working with chemicals need to do that before December.
"Are the OSHA police going to be knocking on your door on Dec. 2? No," Rothenberger said.
However, there could be fines for companies that don't instruct their employees and more penalties as future compliance deadlines pass, he said.
Depending on the type and size of a company, training could take more time, but the relative cost to comply is low, Jacono said. Larger companies, particularly the chemical manufacturers, will have to spend more time on training, replacing chemical labels and containers, as well as printing new chemical data sheets.
Eichelbergers will give its 85 employees an initial hour-long training on the basic hazard symbols and wording, Jacono said. Workers will get a refresher course later in the year, and the company will address the issue again during its annual training.
"The training is the program you see above the surface. The compliance program is what you don't see," Rothenberger said.
Chemical manufacturers, importers, distributors and employers will have to comply with all provisions of the new regulations by June 1, 2015, according to OSHA. However, distributors have until Dec. 1, 2015, before being barred from shipping chemicals without new GHS labels.
By June 1, 2016, all employers must update their alternative workplace labeling and hazard communication programs and provide additional employee training for newly identified hazards, according to OSHA. During the transition periods, companies can comply with the current standards or with the new standards.
"At this point, I don't have to get into the relabeling, but we're going ahead and doing that anyway," Jacono said.
Lancaster County-based Wohlsen Construction builds, renovates and fixes homes and offices, which doesn't sound like it handles many chemicals. But people forget gasoline for trucks, plus solvents and paints that can be dangerous if handled improperly, Safety and Health Manager Ron Epps said.
Its workers and subcontractors need to know those hazards, so Wohlsen spent about 30 minutes reviewing the changes with workers and will continue to educate workers in future training sessions, Epps said.
"Communication is important," he said. "Someone could be put at risk, and that's just not acceptable."
OSHA regional offices have done significant outreach on the changes during the past year, said Jesse Lauder, a spokesman in Washington, D.C.
The Philadelphia regional office has spoken to health care associations, training centers, oil and gas groups, building and contracting partners, safety conferences and labor groups around the state, it said in an email to the Business Journal.
Facilities working with many chemicals must meet the new requirements, Jacono said. Professional offices with a bottle of store-bought bleach in the closet don't need to worry about most of them. However, he said, he always advises companies to err on the side of caution: It won't hurt to familiarize employees with the new hazard symbols and meanings.
"If you question whether or not you have to have it, then get it," he said.