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GHS Labels: What You Need to Know

Chemicals directly or indirectly affect us in almost every facet of life — from the paint in our homes and pesticides on the produce at the grocery store — to specialized chemicals used in hair salons or manufacturing companies. Any one of these potentially toxic chemicals can be inhaled, or inadvertently come in contact with skin or eyes or ingested.

Safeguarding the health of the people who come in contact with these chemicals should be priority one.  Because of this, it’s imperative to have the hazardous properties in the chemicals as well as recommended control and safety measures readily available.

In short, the sound management of chemicals needs to include systems through which chemical hazards are identified and communicated to all who are potentially exposed — including workers, consumers, emergency responders and the public. Currently, there are many classification and labeling systems at the local, national and international levels.

But safety problems arise as chemicals are traded between those different regions or even countries — when there isn’t a common identification system of chemicals and their potential dangers.

That’s where GHS labels come into play.

What exactly is GHS?

GHS is an acronym for the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, the system for standardizing and harmonizing the classification and labeling of chemicals.

According to OSHA, it intends to accomplish the following with GHS labels:

  • Define the health, physical and environmental hazards of chemicals
  • Create classification processes that use available data on chemicals for comparison with the defined hazard criteria
  • Communicate hazard information, as well as protective measures, on labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS).

How do I know if my company should use GHS?

The need for GHS labels varies by product category or stage in the chemical’s lifecycle from research/production to end use. For example:

  • GHS will not cover pharmaceuticals, food additives, cosmetics and pesticide residues in food at the point of consumption.
  • GHS will cover pharmaceuticals, food additives, cosmetics and pesticide residues where workers may be exposed — as in workplaces and in the transport of these chemicals.
  • Medical use of human or veterinary pharmaceuticals is generally addressed in package inserts and is not part of existing hazard communication systems.
  • Foods normally are not labeled under existing hazard communication systems.

You can find more specific information in OSHA’s Guide to The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS).

When will GHS labels be implemented?

There is no international implementation schedule for the GHS. Despite this fact, The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and the Intergovernmental Forum for Chemical Safety (IFCS) emphasize that countries should put standards in place “as soon as possible.”

It is likely that there will be different timeframes for GHS implementation depending on the national systems/sectors. If there are systems already in place, phase-in strategies will be necessary to transition from current requirements to GHS requirements.

How will GHS labels benefit my company?

First and foremost, employers, employees and the public will have ready access to practical and reliable information about chemical hazards, making it possible to prevent and protect their health and safety. It will provide a common framework for regulations for countries that don’t have an existing system as well as foster international chemical trade, with an internationally recognized hazard identification system.


OSHA expects GHS labels to have clear, tangible benefits for the following sectorsi:


  • Fewer chemical accidents
  • Lower health care costs
  • Improved protection of workers and the public
  • Avoid duplicated efforts in creating national systems
  • Decreased costs of enforcement
  • Improved reputation on chemical issues, both domestically and internationally


  • A safer work environment and improved employee relations
  • Better efficiency and reduced costs from compliance with hazard communication regulations
  • Application of expert systems, resulting in maximizing expert resources and minimizing labor and costs
  • Expanded use of training programs on health and safety
  • Fewer accidents and illnesses equal lower costs
  • Improved corporate image

Workers and the general public:

  • Focused and consistent communication about chemical hazards and safe handling/use will make for improved safety for workers and others.
  • Expanded awareness of hazards can result in safer use of chemicals in workplaces and homes.

What will GHS labels look like?

OSHA has updated the requirements for labeling of hazardous chemicals under its Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). As of June 1, 2015, all labels will be required to have pictograms, a signal word, hazard and precautionary statements, the product identifier and supplier identification. 

Here is a brief description of those elements:

  • Symbols (hazard pictograms):  To communicate health, physical and environmental hazard information.
  • Signal words:  The words “Danger” or “Warning” will be used to emphasize a hazard and its level of severity.
  • Hazard/precautionary statements:  GHS will require standard phrases assigned to a hazard class and category, describing the nature of the hazard.
  • Product identifier: Product name and code number
  • Supplier identification: Includes company’s physical address and emergency phone number

OSHA has standardized the symbols, signal words and hazard statements and has assigned  specific hazard categories and classes, as appropriate[i].

View a sample label here:



[1] Guide to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), OSHA

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