Manufacturers and producers in both the United States and Canada will, by now, be well aware of the standardization in hazard communication that the newly adopted Globally Harmonized System (GHS) pushes. 

    As a set of hazardous symbols and warnings, it will bring the hazardous materials documentation of an increasing number of countries broadly into line with each other. 

    However, the operative word here is “broadly”. The intent of the GHS is to act as a unified way of indicating hazardous symbols, but it does not act as a comprehensive system to regulate all aspects of risk management.

    This means that a company that moves towards an SDS Authoring solution that is GHS-compliant will have made a strong move towards regulatory compliance. It does not mean that company will have satisfied all aspects required of them in their safety documentation, especially if they have only carried out a “once-off” realignment.

    To further explore the grey areas where threats to your overall compliance still remain, this article will examine the various challenges that can undermine your efforts to stay in line.

    Basis of Applicability

    To understand the limitations of the GHS system, it is crucial to understand the intention of the system itself.

    The GHS was adopted by the United Nations in 1992 as means to standardize the wide range of hazard communications used worldwide in relation to dangerous chemicals and goods. This is specifically related to adopting the same format and content for both labels and safety data sheets.

    The reasoning behind this adoption is clear; these documents will be more comprehensible to workers and users outside the region / country of origin if the symbols and pictograms are unified. That way, an individual will be able to swiftly ascertain if a certain product is flammable, an irritant, toxic to reproduction etc.

    However, a white paper released by the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs on the role of the GHS neatly outlines the limitations in safe conduct that the GHS can encourage.

    “The basis of classification and labeling GHS classification criteria (is) based on intrinsic hazard, not risk. Classification is essentially equivalent to the hazard identification step in risk assessment paradigms,. Consistent with EPA/OPP policy, a weight of evidence approach is used in making classification determinations based on the best available data. The GHS is not intended to harmonize risk assessment or risk management measures.”

    This is key because it underlines that the GHS cannot be relied upon to satisfy all safety considerations in the handling and use of hazardous chemicals. It can give indications and accurately warn operators regarding the nature of the contents of a certain container, but accidents and injuries will still occur without the robust application of risk assessments and safety procedures.   

    In this regard, the GHS can be considered an aide to general health & safety efforts, but it is still far from a comprehensive system that can be solely relied upon.

    Power of Local Legislation


    The GHS is explicitly a “non-binding” system of hazard communication. That means it operates alongside any existing and enforced health & safety legislation that in place in the country, province or state.

    The range of local legislation that can apply to dangerous chemicals and hazardous goods can be vast. Depending on the national regulator (e.g. OSHA in the United States, Health Canada in Canada), a set of rules and regulations can also be applied at the regional and national level.

    Many of these regulatory enforcement agencies apply regulations that differ significantly from each other. For example, there are various aspects of European legislation will in many cases differ from the individual regulations that are passed on by OSHA in the United States.

    This means that a product containing hazardous substances which is exported from the United States, and which is fully GHS compliant, may find itself in difficulty when it arrives and is employed for use in Europe. Unless the REACH requirements are also met, then product could find itself out of compliance.

    This problem can often manifest itself in differing minimum concentration thresholds, which in turn can result in a substance not being labeled to the correct extent in the eyes of the regulator for the territory where the substance has been exported.

    For example, in the United States, there is a set definition for the minimum concentration of a substance that is classed as being toxic to reproduction. This is a relatively restrictive amount, and any product mix that contains more than 0.1% of this substance needs to be properly labeled.

    However, in Europe, there is a differing minimum threshold, which can go as high as 3% of the content consisting of a reproductive hazard before labeling is required. 

    This could potentially cause an issue if a US company were to import raw chemicals from the EU for use in an industrial process. Being well over the OSHA requirements, the US company could face penalties for keeping hazard material on-site which hasn’t been correctly labeled as toxic to reproduction. Conversely, the US company could be over-stating the toxicity of the product, relative to European standards, should that product be exported across the Atlantic to France, Germany, etc.

    The benefits of the GHS in particular are that it often mandates on the side of safety – but as a “non-binding” system, it cannot account for such variations that occur outside its remit.

    In this example, the US company in the above example could have completely adopted the GHS in all aspects of its production, and imported goods that were also GHS compliant – yet could still face a penalty due to an oversight that GHS compliance could not fix. 



    While adopting the GHS is a wise decision, there are practical language-based requirements to the production of GHS-compliant SDSs and labels that cannot be so easily overcome.

    A key example in this field would be the language requirements that are often present whenever a hazardous product needs to be transported outside the United States.

    An individual effort at creating GHS compliant documentation does not resolve the issue of country-specific translations of SDS and labels. For example, should a US company create labels that are completely compliant with the GHS directives, if those goods are then exported to Canada, there is a local expectation from the regulatory bodies (both federal and provincial) for a French version of the documentation to also be included.

    These other versions of the labels need to entirely accurate, and will be checked and verified by the regulatory in Canada (most likely being Health Canada). Any deficiencies in this area can be subject to a range of penalties, including removal of the product from use until the correct French documents are applied.

    Many providers of SDS solutions simply produce a bare-bones, GHS-compliant English version of documentation for their clients and leave it at that.

    At ERA, our SDS Authoring solution offers an ever-increasing range of languages alongside our SDS authoring solution, allowing our clients to produce fully GHS-compliant documents in any required language.

    With international trade now a norm in the ever-more connected global economy, possessing a quick and easy way to overcome language barriers is invaluable. A solution such as this will help ensure your GHS-compliant goods run into zero language barriers.

    Constant Updates


    Carrying out a single alignment of your hazard documentation towards the GHS system isn’t a long-term fix, due to the fact that the regulations that underpin your documentation often change.

    When authoring SDS documentation, the producer needs to bear in mind the regulations of the GHS itself, the federal authority (OSHA in the case of the US) and any state requirements.

    These three layers of regulation will often interact. While the applicability of the federal layer of regulation will apply to all companies, there will often be a spectrum of regulation that will depend on the state in which the company is based.

    For example, California is one of the more active states in terms of the regulation of hazardous chemicals. August of 2016 saw the re-designation of no less than 14 chemicals over a one-month period, with the designation of some as carcinogenic and others as toxic to reproduction.

    A company with premises in California that carried out a single re-alignment or re-authoring process prior to this regulation change would soon find themselves non-compliant should engage in storage or use of these chemicals without the requisite warning labels and SDSs.

    These changes are often not subject to fanfare or any substantial announcement. They can often be delivered through official communication channels by the regulator in quite non-dramatic and routine fashion. It therefore would fall upon the company to ensure they are completely up to the date with the latest assessments.

    A Baseline of Safety

    The GHS is best understood as providing an excellent baseline for hazard communication. As outlined through the examples above, become GHS-compliant is only part of the broader effort for real compliance.

    To overcome the host of other challenges, a complete solution that comprehensively solves issues ranging from:

    • Constantly Updated Regulations
    • Various Language Requirements
    • Unique Local Legislation

    ERA offers an SDS authoring solution that not only resolves your GHS compliance issues entirely, but also ensures that all regulatory updates (state and federal), language requirements and transportation labeling are full adhered to. 



    This Blog was Co-Authored By: 


    Lorcan Archer
    Post by Lorcan Archer
    December 9, 2016
    Lorcan is a science writer and journalist with ERA.