GlobalChem 2013: Global initiatives begin to bite

22 February 2013 10:29  [Source: ICB]

A harmonised international approach to classifying and labelling chemicals - a long-term goal for governments and industry alike - is slowly moving closer to reality. The UN's Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) has finally gone from planning to implementation, which will have a major impact on anyone making, distributing or transporting products in the US and elsewhere.

Hazardous chemicals Rex Features

 Rex Features

Labelling of chemicals is being standardised around the world

GHS has now been adopted by US authorities, with particular impact on the US Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). As a result, the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) published a modified HCS in March 2012, which came into force in May last year.

By 1 December 2013, employers need to complete training on the new GHS labelling requirements. On 1 June 2015 compliance with all the modified provisions of the final rule (including safety data sheets (SDSs)/labels for substances and mixtures) comes into force, with an additional six-month sell-through period for distributors during which they may sell stock following the old system. During this transition period it is possible to use either system, allowing companies to begin implementing GHS immediately.

The updated HCS is, according to OSHA, designed to create a standardised approach to classifying chemicals and communicating hazard information on labels and safety data sheets. It is particularly aimed at improving workplace safety with higher quality and more consistent hazard information.

Chemical producers and importers must evaluate the hazards of the chemicals they produce or import and prepare labels and safety data sheets for downstream customers. Employers must create labels and safety data sheets for workers who are exposed to chemicals and give them training in safe handling.

OSHA describes the main changes to HCS as a result of GHS as:

  • Hazard classification: Specific criteria for classification of health and physical hazards, as well as classification of mixtures.
  • Labels: Chemical manufacturers and importers will be required to provide a label that includes a harmonised signal word, pictogram, and hazard statement for each hazard class and category. Precautionary statements also must be provided.
  • Safety Data Sheets: Data sheets will now have a specified 16-section format.
  • Information and training: Employers are required to train workers by 1 December 2013 on the elements of the new labels and the format of the safety data sheets, to facilitate recognition and understanding.

Robert Kiefer, director for regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), says: "The HCS has been in place since 1983 and this is a major change, integrating GHS into the hazcom standard." Kiefer says it is important for ACC members to understand the interpretation of the new requirements.

He adds: "The ACC also petitioned OSHA for review of the HCS to understand more fully the obligations relating to SDS and labelling when dealing with a product that, as sold or shipped, is not a combustible dust (CD), but under normal conditions of use or foreseeable emergencies could present a CD hazard downstream." Combustible dust has now been included in the definition of "hazardous chemical" under the modified HCS.

Kiefer says that although in theory GHS is harmonised, it has been implemented differently across the regions of the globe. "There are still different building blocks that countries can choose to implement," he says. "It's been described as, 'Everyone working off the same song sheet but singing a different tune'."

ACC has been very supportive of the implementation of GHS, but it would like to take harmonisation and trade liberalisation much further. Mike Walls, ACC's vice president for regulatory and technical affairs, says: "In GHS we've got an opportunity to reduce some of the transactional costs associated with hazard communication across boundaries. But we're asking: 'How can we maximise the benefits of this type of regulation?'"


ACC is trying to identify where it can promote regulatory cooperation, possibly tied in to moves by the EU and US to start negotiating a new free trade agreement. In the midst of the global financial crisis in late 2011, the EU and the US established a High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth, led by US trade representative Ron Kirk and EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht.

Walls says: "Across the Atlantic we've been very engaged with our Office of the US Trade Representative and our Department of Commerce in encouraging a look at regulatory cooperation as a basis for cooperation in a US-EU free trade agreement." Tariffs between the US and EU are already low and further harmonisation could liberate about $1.5bn (€1.1bn) of trade, according to some estimates.

"We're talking about a broader agreement on trade cooperation. We're not talking about an agreement to generate identical regulatory standards - it's harmonisation of the processes in which we regulate things like chemicals. The potential benefits of cooperation far exceed $1.5bn."

The High Level Working Group was due to report before the end of 2012, but was delayed and rescheduled to report in late January or early February. The expectation is that the report will recommend that both sides of the Atlantic engage in a comprehensive, ambitious negotiation for a free trade agreement.

"We're not trying to harmonise Reach and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) - we accept that each side will continue to regulate chemicals differently and we accept sovereign decisions on risk management," says Walls. ACC is keen to see greater harmonisation and cooperation in areas such as the prioritisation of chemicals for testing and assessment, which could potentially save a huge amount of money.

According to Walls: "If we're confident of the scientific expertise on both sides of the Atlantic and if we're talking about two systems of regulation which are trying to prioritise for assessment, couldn't we pursue greater cooperation in that area? Could we agree on a trans-Atlantic list of chemicals which we might prioritise for assessment?"


  • CLP - Regulation on Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures. This is the EU's method of complying with GHS
  • GHS - Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. The UN initiative to harmonise worldwide chemical labelling
  • HCS - Hazard Communication Standard. US standards implemented and modified by OSHA in 2012
  • OSHA - Occupational Safety & Health Administration
  • Reach - the EU's chemical regulation
  • EPA - US Environmental Protection Agency
  • SAICM: Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management: global roadmap for achieving safe chemicals management by 2020
  • ICCM: UN's International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM) which, in February 2006, adopted SAICM
  • ICCA: International Council of Chemical Associations


Moves towards developing a worldwide approach to promote safe management of chemicals are now entering an accelerated phase. Through the United Nations, a long-term initiative has been under development since 2002 when, at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, a goal was agreed of ensuring that, by the year 2020, chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimise significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health.

To organise and monitor progress on this objective, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) was adopted at the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM) on 6 February 2006 in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

Every three years the ICCM conference is held to review progress on SAICM. The latest event took place in Nairobi, Kenya, from 17-21 September 2012.

The aims of this conference were to review progress on SAICM using data on 20 indicators of progress adopted at the second session. It also considered emerging policy issues and new activities to be added to a Global Plan of Action.

According to Greg Skelton, senior director, regulatory and technical affairs at ACC, SAICM is the primary global forum for international chemicals management, and has already had some successes ahead of the 2020 goal. "We'd argue that although there is still a long way to go, we've already had some useful progress, particularly in building trust between the stakeholders," he says.

"For example, ICCA now has a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) working collaboratively on projects in the developing world to promote sound chemicals management."

At the ICCM3 meeting in Nairobi in September 2012, governments called for SAICM to be strengthened to help it make progress more quickly towards the 2020 goal. Skelton, who is the industry representative on the SAICM bureau, its governing body, says the group has not yet seen any proposals.

"If you look at how to make the most progress, by far the biggest portion is helping developing countries put in place basic chemical safety rules that can make significant progress in sound chemicals management," he says.

According to ACC's Walls, SAICM - which is voluntary and non-binding - is more effective and efficient than lengthy negotiations over formal, legally-binding treaties.

"The call by governments to strengthen SAICM is a symptom of what I call 'treaty fatigue'," Walls says. "In the late 1990s and early 2000s we spent a lot of time hashing out the negotiation and implementation of some international chemicals treaties. That's a long process which doesn't necessarily result in the type of significant incremental gains which are possible from a more joint or partnership approach."


Part of the International Council of Chemical Associations response to SAICM is the Global Product Strategy (GPS). This set a goal completing safety assessments for high priority, high volume chemicals by the end of 2012.

A portal on the ICCA website now contains free access to over 3,000 safety assessments. ACC aims to complete assessments for all chemicals in commerce by 2018, in advance of the 2020 goal.

  • Will Beacham is deputy editor of ICIS Chemical Business, based in ICIS' main offices in Sutton, UK

By: Will Beacham
+44 20 8652 3214

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